Cranberry makes comeback

Studies showing health benefits help in developing new markets in European nations

November 23, 2006|By Bloomberg News

BOSTON -- The cranberry, a Thanksgiving holiday icon in the New World, is bouncing back from a market slump, thanks to the Old World.

Four centuries after the bitter berry was embraced by hungry immigrants who left Europe seeking a better life, the cranberry is getting a boost from new markets in Germany, France and, yes, Great Britain, where those first expatriates set sail.

"It's been phenomenal," said David Farrimond, general manager of the Cranberry Marketing Committee, a quasi-public agency in Wareham, Mass., under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "You go into a little neighborhood store in Germany now, and they have cranberries. In some places, they have our Thanksgiving, too."

U.S. cranberry exports, helped by studies showing health benefits, have jumped 70 percent in the past six years. Ninety percent of the product shipped overseas is in the form of juice concentrate, less than 2 percent is raw berries, and the rest is canned sauces or dried, sweetened cranberries sold as a snack food or baking ingredient, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Today, 26 percent of the U.S. cranberry crop ends up abroad in one form or another, including the equivalent of more than 8 million pounds (3.6 million kilograms) bound for Germany.

"It's kind of a boomerang effect," said James McWilliams, author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press, 2005).

Besides the cranberry, McWilliams said, Indian corn fits the boomerang pattern. In each case, it took time for Europeans to warm up to the new foods. Indian corn was first fed to livestock before it migrated to the table.

In the push to expand sales through overseas markets, one of the first stops was France, where the cranberry was pitched not as a side to turkey and stuffing but as a health food.

The cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpo, is packed with the tannins that help prevent urinary tract infections, said Farrimond, of the Cranberry Marketing Committee. Research in 1998 at Rutgers University found that the tannins prevented the bacteria most commonly linked to infections from attaching to cells in the urinary tract, according to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association in Wareham.

"The French were so enthusiastic," said Farrimond.

After one trade show, he said, locals were taking the leftover cranberries and passing them out to friends.

What the new export markets mean for the cranberry industry in Massachusetts, home of more than 4 in 10 U.S. growers, is nothing short of survival. Grown from evergreen shrubs indigenous to cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the cranberry was first cultivated commercially in the Cape Cod town of Dennis, Mass., around 1816.

Today, cranberry sauce is a prominent dish alongside turkey on Thanksgiving tables across the U.S.

The outlook for growers was bleak as recently as 1999, when prices per 100-pound barrel plummeted to $16 from $70 largely on overproduction in Canada and Wisconsin, the top U.S. producer.

"I would have expected real dire consequences," said Jeff LaFleur, spokesman for the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association.

One fear, LaFleur said, was that the small growers would be forced to sell off their acreage to homebuilders in the popular vacation area of Cape Cod.

"It was fairly dicey," recalled Jim Jenkins, a fourth-generation cranberry grower in West Barnstable, Mass.

Jenkins, 63, runs his 78-acre operation with his son, Fred, 38, and grandson, Joel, 20. He said he never seriously considered selling out.

Yet the Jenkins family never fully recovered from the market downturn until last year, when they felt comfortable enough to put money back into the business. They replaced a 25-year-old backhoe.

Today, Massachusetts has 14,200 acres of cranberry farms, and the price per barrel has climbed to between $35 and $40. It is the state's most valuable crop.

Export markets are crucial now because domestic consumption of cranberries has been slumping in recent years. Per capita consumption of cranberry juice has fallen to 1.75 pounds per capita today from 2 pounds in 2002, according to Department of Agriculture figures.

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