The Cranberry Industry Is Wild. (Also: We Have Too Many Cranberries)

Cranberries are among the strangest crops out there.

Liz West on Flickr

Roughly 20 percent of all cranberries are sold in a single week, leading up to Thanksgiving. But that's one of the least weird things about the cranberry industry.

Grown primarily in bogs (weird), the American cranberry is grown in just a few states: Wisconsin and Massachusetts are by far the two biggest producers. The Ocean Spray Cooperative almost single-handedly controls the entire market; roughly 70 percent of cranberry growers are under their umbrella. (It escapes antitrust regulation thanks to exceptions for agricultural cooperatives.) And now, cranberry growers are seeking a new outlet for their fruit: the garbage.

Bloomberg reports that cranberry production is at such a crazy high that even before the 2017 harvest, cranberry reserves in storage were plentiful enough to easily meet the market demand. If literally zero cranberries were pulled from bogs in 2017, there would still be a surplus. This is partly due to  lessening demand. Despite some interesting compounds in the berries—high levels of polyphenols, for example, which may be beneficial to immune health—little has been proven about the cranberry’s status as a superfood, despite a very aggressive push from Ocean Spray. (Various cranberry marketing groups fund lots of studies.)

But cranberries themselves are very, very sour and bitter, and require extremely large amounts of sweeteners to make them palatable in the form of juice. With decreasing sales of both soda and juice, cranberry producers are feeling the crunch—but still producing huge amounts of fruit.

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The Cranberry Marketing Committee is what’s called a “marketing order.” These are sort of like universal unions for individual products; there’s one for milk, one for almonds, one for raisins, that kind of thing. Each of these organizations has the power to legally force all growers or producers of their product to do things, like set prices and supply quotas and pay for marketing efforts. It’s a way to ensure that supply stays sane and that big producers can’t dramatically undercut the little guys, and also, in large part, to force all growers or producers to contribute to marketing efforts. (Think the”Got milk?” campaign.) And yes, these are legally enforceable rules; for an individual cranberry grower to, say, decide he or she should flood a local market with surplus cranberries, there would be legal penalties. To ensure that the rules aren’t in some way unfair, the USDA oversees all of these marketing orders. In this case, since the Cranberry Marketing Committee wants to institute a bunch of changes that would be universal to all cranberry growers, they have to get those changes approved by the USDA.

So! Those proposed changes would limit the next cranberry harvest to 25 percent less than the current demand. (The remainder would come from storage and imports.) That’s a huge dip for cranberry growers, and if the USDA approves it, would force growers producing too many cranberries to dispose of the extras. The USDA approval would also create blanket rules for disposal of excess cranberries, and included in the proposed changes would be an unusual clause allowing the growers to compost their surplus berries.

Cranberries: a very weird business.

The Cranberry Industry Is Wild. (Also: We Have Too Many Cranberries)