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Why your Thanksgiving cranberries might be more trouble than they’re worth for local growers

The price of cranberries has been sinking for more than five years due to overproduction. Families like the Rhodes, who own Edgewood Bogs in Massachusetts, are used to periodic cycles of oversupply and falling prices, but new bogs in western U.S. states in Canada are making farmers especially vulnerable. Paul Solman reports on how small growers are surviving in a changing cranberry market.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, they’re a Thanksgiving staple and may be on your dinner table at this very moment- cranberries. But as economics correspondent Paul Solman found out, the industry is facing tough times and wants to nix the notion that the super fruit is just for the holidays.

    It’s part of our weekly series, Making Sense.

  • Woman:

    Oh, I like your socks!

  • Paul Solman:

    Thank you.

    It’s harvest time at Edgewood Bogs in Carver, Massachusetts, where Matt and Cindy Rhodes grow about a billion cranberries a year on more than 200 acres.

    So, what’s happening in the cranberry business these days?

  • Matt Rhodes:

    For most of the independent growers, the price that they’re being paid is below their cost of production. There’s a lot of nights when you lay in bed staring at the ceiling wondering if you’ve made the right decision.

  • Paul Solman:

     It’s kind of squishy underfoot.

    Wading in and slogging on, as their family has for almost a century, despite today’s prices, sinking for five-plus years now, because of a classic problem in market economies- periodic overproduction.

    So, this is the classic agricultural cycle, right? Over-optimism; more production because prices are pretty good.

  • Cindy Rhodes:

    Exactly. Yes.

  • Matt Rhodes:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    Too much production, prices crash.

  • Cindy Rhodes:

    Yes, exactly.

  • Paul Solman:

    Same old story?

  • Matt Rhodes:

    Same old story.

  • Paul Solman:

    A story older than the bogs, old as the hills, in wheat, corn, hogs, you name it. Each has a cycle all its own.

    Just this year, prices curdled in the U.S. dairy industry because of oversupply. And further afield, there are cycles in the auto industry, the insurance industry, and, of course, real estate.

    But farmers are unusually vulnerable, and this year, cranberry farmers in particular, in part due to new bogs in western states and Canada, in part to more efficient production techniques.

    It’s so weird to someone like me, the consumer, you know, to think farmers are looking for good weather, a bumper crop, but then a bumper crop destroys you.

  • Matt Rhodes:

    It could, it could. You got to have a bumper crop at the right time.

  • Paul Solman:

    Just ahead of everybody else.

  • Matt Rhodes:

    Yes.

  • Cindy Rhodes:

    And continue to seek out other markets for that bumper crop.

  • Paul Solman:

    We’ll get to Cindy Rhodes’ entrepreneurial remedy in a moment.

    For almost a century, farmers have looked to government to protect them by buying up oversupply or paying farmers to produce less.

    During the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, an act was passed to boost farm prices via agricultural set asides. They exist to this very day. And so, that’s the proposed panacea for the cranberry crisis, literally dump part of next year’s crop.

  • Matt Rhodes:

    You go through the whole process of growing ’em, delivering ’em, cleaning ’em, freezing ’em, and then 15 percent would then be taken out and disposed of after the cost.

  • Paul Solman:

    Destroyed?

  • Matt Rhodes:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    Even though the Rhodes’ have buyers for all of their berries. Four truckloads were shipping out to Britain the day we were there. They’ve broken ranks with the big cranberry cooperative, Ocean Spray, and started branding their own products.

  • Cindy Rhodes:

    We started Cape Cod Select. We realized if we were going to stay in the business, we had to control our own destiny and the only way to do that was to come up with other ideas. Well, I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t find frozen cranberries in the grocery store, this was back in 2009. We actually built the entire category and now we’re the number one selling cranberry in the country.

  • Man:

    Hi, we’re Ocean Spray cranberry growers.

  • Man:

    And this is our 100 percent juice.

  • Paul Solman:

    So while Ocean Spray spent decades, and millions, goosing demand for the juice, the Rhodes’ sold off bogs and plowed the money back into modernizing their plant to package the berries themselves.

    Three sons are the fourth generation of Rhodes growers. James, Jarrod and Patrick, help run every cranny of the operation today.

  • James Rhodes:

    When we were downsizing we actually became one of the most high-tech cranberry companies in the industry.

  • Cindy Rhodes:

    What you see in here is programmed to take out all of the yellow berries, any white berries. It’s also programmed to take out any bruised and dented berries, that one’s got little spots on it. So, anything —

  • Paul Solman:

    What was wrong with that one?

  • Cindy Rhodes:

    It’s probably got a slight dent in it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Berry consumers care about looks.

  • Cindy Rhodes:

     So there, see this is perfect. They’re looking — it’s slightly colored. Exactly. You got it. You’re hired!

  • Paul Solman:

    The Rhodes figured their best job is to stay in business with Cape Cod Select, and build the export market while commodity growers close up their box.

    A grower like Steve Ward who supplies berries to turn into juice is forced to harvest pretty much by himself.

  • Steve Ward:

    Many nights in the early spring and during cranberry harvest season I’m working all night long.

  • Paul Solman:

    Does he know the Rhodes?

  • Steve Ward:

    I think I’ll have to model myself more after them as I go into the future. I’m behind the eight ball compared to them.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you’re looking at what they’re doing?

  • Steve Ward:

    Definitely. And I’m looking heavily towards ag tourism. Is there an opportunity with ag tourism?

  • Paul Solman:

    People walking into the bogs?

  • Steve Ward:

    People coming to the bog and actually picking their own berries, possibly a hayride, having some products here for them to buy.

  • Paul Solman:

    To stay afloat today, he may also grow a more productive variety of berry, even though he knows that that will only make the glut worse.

  • Steve Ward:

    The problem for me is if I don’t convert to the newer varieties and produce more per acre, I’m going to be in trouble in the next five, maybe even less years.

  • Paul Solman:

    Trouble meaning?

  • Steve Ward:

     My cost of production per barrel will be too high for me to survive.

  • Paul Solman:

    And it’s not just Ocean Spray coop members who face the merciless market, so do independent growers like the Rhodes, because the problem behind this episode of overproduction turns out to be a glut of cranberry juice, the staple for which growers like Steve Ward provide the bulk of the crop. A problem not lost on the oldest Rhodes son, James.

  • James Rhodes:

    Now you got the growers who have met the demands of their suppliers and planted the crops, and now, they don’t know what to do with the fruit that they’ve planted. So, everyone in the industry is suffering.

  • Paul Solman:

    And everyone is being forced to destroy a good chunk of their crop. But by building new demand for the berries themselves, the Rhodes are trying to stay ahead of the cycle.

    For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting knee-deep in the bogs in Carver, Massachusetts.

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