Bad Times For Cranberry Growers In New Jersey, Expert Says

Historic bogs at Double Trouble State Park lay fallow again this year

Double Trouble State Park, Bayville, New Jersey, October 2013
Double Trouble State Park, Bayville, New Jersey, October 2013

by Patricia A. Miller

There was a time when field workers trudged through the cranberry bogs in the crisp autumn air at Double Trouble State Park. They bent over and combed the delicate plants with wooden cranberry sorters.

Field boss Alfia Masumeci's words rang out through the woods of Double Trouble.

"Pick clean!" he would bellow.

The berries were sorted and packed at the historic cranberry sorting house that overlooks the Gowdy Bog. The workers were later replace by mechanical threshing machines that would knock the berries off the plants into the flooded bogs.

Those days are gone, at least for now. New Jersey's "Red October" was anything but this year. And next year isn't looking too good either.

The unharvested cranberry bogs at Double Trouble State Park this year are a symptom of bigger problems that New Jersey cranberry growers are trying to cope with.

Simply put, it didn't pay for most growers to harvest this year, said Nick Vorso, director of the Phillip E Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry. The Chatsworth-based center is a substation of Rutgers University

"The price this year is horrible," he said. "And it's going to be even worse next fall. The fact is, it wouldn't have paid for them to harvest them."

That was the case with Honest Berries, a Deptford-based company granted a special use permit to maintain and harvest the Double Trouble bogs last year and this year.

But company officials decided later this year it wasn't worth harvesting the berries this year, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Robert Considine has said.

Competition from Canada

Depending on the efficiency of operation, the price per pound is hovering between 8 cents to 15 cents per pound, far below the break-even point of 25 to 40 cents per pound, Vorso said.

"Growers will have to go out of business for the supplies to go down," he said. The strongest will survive."

Competition from cranberry growers in Canada - particularly in Quebec - led to a glut of cranberries in the United States, which sent prices plummeting, he said.

"It has exacerbated the situation," Vorso said.

New Jersey now has roughly 3,500 acres of active bogs. Compare that to 1890, when there was roughly 12,000 acres throughout the state.

The bogs were decimated in the early 1900s by "false blossom disease," which left about 2,500 acres statewide, Vorso said.

But the acreage had crept up to 3,300 by 1980 and has remained fairly steady ever since, he said.

Only a dozen growers turning a profit

New Jersey growers and harvesters are also moving towards Integrated Pest Management solutions, rather than traditional herbicides and pesticides to control diseases, Vorso said.

Officially, there are about 30 cranberry growers in New Jersey.

"Probably only about a dozen make a living at it," he said. "Ocean Spray is the biggest organized cooperative. It's maintaining the industry in a much healthier state than it would have been."

Despite the poor market, cranberry bogs must be maintained, fertilized, weeded and watered to ensure their future, he said.

That includes harvesting berries even if there is no profit involved, Vorso said.

"The recommendation we make is that the fruit be removed, regardless," he said.

Removing the berries instead of letting them rot in the bogs reduces the amount of fungi that could affect the plants, Vorso said.

Only one New Jersey grower has flooded his bogs so far this year. Unless the temperatures dip below zero, most plants can survive without flooding the bogs, Vorso said.

But if you are looking for a big "Red October" next year, you will probably be disappointed, he said.


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