American farmers are growing too many cranberries

“I’m not getting paid enough for this.”
“I’m not getting paid enough for this.”
Image: AP/Daniel Hulshizer
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Americans buy about five million pounds of canned cranberry sauce each year, much of it during the week of Thanksgiving. For many in the US, a turkey dinner without some touch of the tart red fruit—whether in jelly, sauce, salad, or dessert—is unthinkable.

As consistent as that demand may be, cranberry prices were lower than ever this year due to an overabundant harvest.

Cranberry production has been ticking up slowly over the years, and there were just too many grown in 2013.
Cranberry production has been ticking up slowly over the years, and there were just too many grown in 2013.

Wisconsin, which produces about two-thirds of the US cranberry crop, appears to be responsible for the glut. There was more than a 25% increase in the state’s production between 2012, when 4.83 million barrels were harvested, and 2013, when 6.1 million barrels were harvested. That pushed prices from 48 cents a pound in 2012 to 32 cents last year—barely above the breakeven point for most growers.

Earlier this year, Wisconsin growers asked the the federal government to implement mandatory production limits so that supply would not outstrip demand too much. Their request was denied.

However, this week the government announced it is purchasing 68 million pounds, or $55 million dollars worth, of surplus cranberry products from farmers in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Oregon, and other cranberry-producing states. Where will those 68 million pounds of cranberry juice, sauce, and fresh berries go? Why, into federal school lunches and food pantries, of course.

The government buys cranberries from farmers every year, though never this many. Fortunately for the farmers, the 2014 crop is expected to yield fewer berries than were harvested this season. Meanwhile, cranberry growers have been actively searching for ways to increase worldwide demand for cranberries—including an attempt to create thriving markets in South America and Asia.