N.J. growers aim to sell the world on cranberries

Cranberry pickers work in the bogs at Joe Darlington's Burlington County farm, pushing the berries toward loaders.
Cranberry pickers work in the bogs at Joe Darlington's Burlington County farm, pushing the berries toward loaders. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 12, 2013

The cranberry bogs on Joe Darlington's farm in Burlington County have been producing the same glorious crimson fruit for 160 years.

But more of the cranberries harvested there are now ending up in new juices and other Ocean Spray cranberry products outside the United States, as the cooperative looks to new markets overseas.

Ocean Spray held cooking classes in China and Russia for the first time last summer to teach locals how to incorporate the cranberry into their cuisine. In June, it had its first harvest in Chile - where farmers joined the co-op last year - and it has been tailoring its products to accommodate overseas tastes, with Ocean Spray Cran Black Currant in the United Kingdom and Ocean Spray Cran Mango in Mexico.

"This is part of an overall plan to increase demand," said Dan Crocker, director of cooperative supply for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. "It's the same story that Ocean Spray had when it began in 1930, when we were only selling sauce and fresh fruit.

"We're always looking for new consumers and products and other channels."

Ocean Spray, based in Lakeville, Mass., has more than 1,000 products in more than 50 countries. It has grown market share in Europe and wants a larger presence in Latin America and Asia.

But there was another reason for the international expansion and aggressive marketing overseas: The U.S. cranberry market has matured, and the industry has an oversupply.

Last year was a record harvest year, 11.2 million barrels. Ocean Spray said it expected the global industry crop for 2013 to top that, up to 11.5 million barrels. It will know by next month, when this year's harvest culminates.

With so much fruit to sell, Ocean Spray needs new markets. Almost all of New Jersey's cranberries are grown in South Jersey, and 99 percent of the state's cranberry farmers are members of the cooperative, which markets and sells the fruit they grow.

"Ocean Spray has more cranberries than it is comfortable marketing, and there is a lot of cheap fruit out there," said Darlington, 63, a fifth-generation cranberry farmer who owns J.J. White, a farm in the Pine Barrens named after his great-grandfather. "We're all nervous."

Farmers such as Darlington who belong to the cooperative are doing quite well; Ocean Spray had record gross sales of $2.2 billion in fiscal 2012. Those who don't - known as independents - are not. Only a handful remain. Darlington said going international will help save the industry.

Approximately 80 percent of Ocean Spray cranberries harvested this year will be consumed in North America (with 20 percent of that consumed Thanksgiving week), and the rest will be shipped overseas.

"Ocean Spray started going international about 20 years ago," Darlington said. "International is now 20 percent of sales."

"It's grown incrementally over that time period," he said as he drove his Toyota Tundra around the farm this week. "It started with Europe and gradually expanded. In France, Germany, and England, the volumes [of Ocean Spray products] are significant."

With 525,000 barrels of cranberries harvested a year, New Jersey is the third-largest cranberry-growing state after Wisconsin (four million barrels) and Massachusetts (roughly two million).

"With a perennial crop, we know our growers are going to deliver fruit to us year after year, and they have a vision to support one generation after the other," said Crocker. "We take a long-term view on making sure there is continued growth for demand of cranberries throughout the world."

J.J. White is one of only about 20 cranberry farms left in New Jersey. There used to be more than 400. Most were overtaken by development, a crop virus, and market conditions.

Recent history shows why Darlington and others are anxious, despite the price they got for their crop last year, about $60 per barrel. A cranberry surplus that caused plummeting prices, starting in 2000, took out hundreds of his brethren.

"It can happen at any time," he said. "We went from roughly $55 a barrel in 1999 to half of that the next year, to less than half of that, $11 a barrel, the following year."

Darlington said that in 2000, payments got stretched out to a year and a half, instead of a year, to Ocean Spray growers because there was such a surplus of cranberries.

The Cranberry Marketing Committee, a quasi-federal agency made up of growers that has the authority to recommend to the secretary of agriculture how much a grower sends to market, stepped in. Every cranberry grower in the United States was restricted in what could be sold in 2000 and 2001.

By 2002, the price per barrel had stabilized, and it increased until 2010.

"Something could precipitate a crash in the market for everybody," Darlington said. He said the costs of production today - from preparing the land to buying equipment - were so high that no farmer could afford to keep going if prices dropped to 2000 levels.

In one area of the J.J. White farm Monday, a "floating picker" that Darlington - who comes from a long line of engineers - invented was busy plucking cranberries from their vines. The wheelless picker consisted of a barge pulled by two tractor-powered winches on either end of the bog. The innovation has increased yield by 25 percent an acre and causes less damage to the fruit.

The plucked fruit floated to the top, creating what looked like a sea of red over the bog. The berries were later scooped up by a bog elevator that lifted them into a waiting dump truck. They were cleaned and taken to a receiving station in Chatsworth (known as the cranberry capital of New Jersey because of the number of cranberry acres). From there, they went to a freezer, and finally, to a processing center in Bordentown.

Of the 3,000 cranberry-producing acres left in New Jersey, 350 are at J.J. White, now the state's second-largest cranberry farm.

"We've lost 80 percent of the cranberry-growing acreage in New Jersey in the last 80 years," Darlington said. "There's not a whole lot of us left."

But he and his wife, Brenda Conner, 49, also a fifth-generation cranberry farmer and a "Piney" who has lived in the Pine Barrens all her life, hope to hand down J.J. White to their children.

The couple just bought a $160,000 bus to give tours of the farm "so the public can learn about our way of life," Conner said. Monday was the start of the tours.

"There's a real special relationship out here," Conner said, narrating for a dozen visitors as she looked out the bus windows at cranberry bogs in full harvest.

"Pineys protect the land, and the land supports their livelihood," she said. "We are deep-rooted.

"We don't want to leave."



Share of Ocean Spray cranberries consumed in North America.


Barrels of cranberries harvested a year in N.J., making it the third-largest cranberry-growing state after Wisconsin (4 million barrels a year) and Massachusetts (2 million).


Record global cranberry crop

in 2012, in millions of barrels.


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