The cranberry harvest is wrapping up in North America. The ruby red berries are a fixture of holiday feasts in the U.S.A., from Thanksgiving Day through Christmas. Seven years ago, cranberry growers were pushed to the brink by a crash in wholesale prices.
But now cranberries are again a hot commodity, and here's a safe prediction: diners who sit down for an American Thanksgiving meal will have a tart side dish. Nine out of 10 Thanksgiving dinners include cranberry sauce, according to market researchers.
The cranberry is one of the few fruits that's native to North America. It grows in wet lowlands called bogs. Today, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and the Pacific Northwest are the main cranberry producing regions, and practically all of this year's crop has now been harvested by farmers like Bob Quinby. He says he's enjoyed working the land since he was kid. "It's a lifestyle. You're your own boss. You're outdoors. You get to do different things in the spring, a different job in the summer. Harvest is different than the rest."
Quinby is a second-generation cranberry grower. He farms near Grayland, on the Washington State coast. Earlier this month [October], you'd have found him walking behind a harvester machine, a straw hat shading his face. The picker-pruner contraption separates the cranberries from the low-lying vines and funnels them into burlap bags.
Quinby says he picks his fruit when the bog is dry so that it keeps better for the fresh market. "We get a premium for the fresh fruit berry. But they need to be dry harvested and we're set up for dry harvesting." Berries destined to become juice or sauce tend to be skimmed off a flooded bog. That's considered more efficient.
Quinby survived a shakeout in his industry in the late 1990's. Cranberry prices crashed seven years ago, losing 80 percent of their value. The primary culprit, he says: over-supply.
"Because the price had been high for quite a while, there was some over-planting that got ahead of sales. A lot of the independents outside of Ocean Spray planted more than what they could sell and then they started dropping the price of concentrate in order to sell more." He recalls having to cash in his retirement savings and sell a life as golf caddies at a nearby luxury resort.
Wholesale prices have steadily rebounded. A big investment by the world's dominant processor, Ocean Spray Cranberries, signals even better times ahead.
The sounds and smells of construction replace the sweet aroma of cooked cranberries in a wing of the Ocean Spray plant near Aberdeen, Washington. Plant manager Rick Hole says the cooperative is spending tens of millions of dollars to expand and renovate this factory and sister plants in Wisconsin and Massachusetts. "Since 1999, this the brightest future I think we've seen for a long time," he says. "We're definitely tickled about the huge investment."
Most of the new spending is to add packing lines for sweetened, dried cranberries. Surging demand for these so-called "craisins" has been a major factor in boosting profits. Hole explains, "These craisins are sold as an ingredient. They're appearing in over 1,000 different food types like yogurt, energy bars. A lot of people use them on their salads, and cereals, muffins."
The tasty topping is also said to be especially good for your insides, according to a string of medical studies that Rick Hole eagerly touts. "We've done a lot of work on the healthy aspect of the cranberry. I think that's been important." Medical researchers found that cranberries suppress "bad" bacteria in the digestive tract. They help the body ward off urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers and gum disease. Not something you want to think about at the dinner table perhaps, but the kind of news a grower calls "cran-tastic."