In the not-so-old days, circa the mid-1990s, a small farmer along Washington’s southern coastline could rake enough cranberries—and money—from just 10 acres of bogs to send the kids to college and maybe have enough cash left to spend Christmas in Hawaii.
Since the late 1990s, however, some cranberry farmers have been bogged down in another shade of red: debt.
“Now,” says Kim Patten, Washington State University Extension’s cranberry specialist based on the Long Beach Peninsula, “both husband and wife better be working outside jobs and having the kids go to college on their own—and never have a day off.”
An expanding supply of cranberries outran the demand for them, and Washington’s member-growers in the Ocean Spray Co-op saw the price paid for their tart berries go sour.
“We used to say we could raise a family and pay our debts and live decently on what we made 10 years ago, five years ago,” says Cranberry Alliance president Merri Erickson, whose family farms 20 acres near Grayland, Washington. “We can’t do that anymore.”
The Ericksons own one of 120 small cranberry farms in rural Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, where farmers have planted the fruit since the late 1800s.
Much of the state’s crop comes from these family-owned plots, which total 1,500 lowland acres. The annual crop brings $3 million to $6 million to a regional economy wounded by limping timber and fishing industries.
Into the 1990s, U.S. and Canadian growers rode Ocean Spray’s wave of prosperity, as juice drinks splashed grocery shelves in crimson. By 1995, prices climbed to $60 per 100-pound barrel, double the price most farmers need to make a living.
Success bred competition. Newcomers and old-timers scoured new bogs from soggy land. Cranberry supplies soared. Prices plunged. By 1999, the barrel price bottomed out at $11. The next two years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered farmers to dump part of their crop to diminish the surplus.
As Washington cranberry farmers lost money, a handful quit. Most stuck it out, waiting for the tide to turn. Slowly, it has. The price for this year’s crop is expected to creep up to between $25 and $30 a barrel, back to where some farmers can survive, says Patten.
Malcolm McPhail, a former WSU Extension agent, this year expects a bumper crop from 90 acres of cranberries he grows near Black Lake in Ilwaco, Washington., making him the state’s second-largest cranberry farmer.
McPhail also is the state director for the industry’s Cranberry Institute, which promotes research showing that eating cranberries—long known to fight urinary tract infections—also helps prevent cancer and heart disease, among an array of other health benefits. McPhail, Patten, and others say good health news could boost cranberry sales, already rising since the introduction of a milder “white” cranberry drink pressed from immature berries.
But even as the market rebounds, a new threat looms. Environmental groups last summer won a ruling to restrict the use of dozens of pesticides along salmon streams in much of the Pacific Northwest. Growers preparing for this October’s harvest still didn’t know whether new regulations would harm southwest Washington’s cranberry farms, located in one of the state’s few areas without federally protected salmon runs.
Patten says the region’s cranberry farmers already guard waterways from contamination, but Patten knows no profitable way around timely chemical applications to ward off insects, weeds, and fungi that obliterate untreated bogs.
He is testing new “environmentally benign” pesticides for farmers. One solution for weeds may be as simple and harmless as spraying vinegar at just the right time. Other problems are tougher to fix, and even a salad dressing ingredient must win approval to be applied as an herbicide.
“It’s not something you just do overnight” to win pesticide approval, Patten says. “If they don’t have a label, we can’t use them.”