LONG BEACH, Wash. — Cranberry growers, whose production has far outstripped demand, have started harvesting the 2017 crop, unsure of the percentage of their berries that will enter the market.
The USDA isn’t expected to decide whether to grant the industry’s petition for volume controls for several months. In the meantime, it’s farming as usual, said Malcolm McPhail, a grower on the Long Beach Peninsula.
“You’re still trying to produce as much as you can,” he said.
The federal Cranberry Marketing Committee, made up of growers and handlers, asked the USDA in August to order withholding approximately 15 percent of this year’s crop and 25 percent in 2018 to at least prevent the surplus from growing. The surplus of cranberries exceeds one year’s demand.
The surplus has developed over several years, driven by abundant harvests in Wisconsin and the emergence of Canada as a major cranberry producer. The marketing committee petitioned the USDA for volume controls in 2014, but the USDA cut off consideration, complaining there had been too much chatter between U.S. growers and their Quebec counterparts about reducing the surplus. Since then, the marketing committee has reportedly squelched talk about Canada in meetings.
A USDA spokesman Tuesday said he couldn’t estimate when USDA will make a decision on the cranberry industry’s petition.
According to the proposal, cranberry farmers would deliver their crop as usual this fall, but handlers would be responsible for disposing or diverting to noncommercial uses, such as food banks, 15 percent of the crop, excluding some exemptions. Volume controls would not apply to organic cranberries or the first 12.5 million pounds delivered to a handler.
The handler would have to dispose of or properly divert the berries by Aug. 31, 2018.
In 2018, 25 percent of a grower’s historical production would be restricted.
“I’m very much in favor of withholding,” said McPhail, who belongs to the Ocean Spray cooperative. “You have to do something about the oversupply because it just gets bigger and bigger.”
Bandon, Ore., grower Charlie Ruddell said that if the USDA approves volume controls, he expects Ocean Spray to handle the disposing of his cranberries, allowing the cooperative to cull the least-valuable fruit.
“If I had to dispose of fruit on the farm, there’s going to be valuable fruit disposed of,” he said.
Ruddell said he’s already seen some independent growers, who have suffered more in the downturn in prices than Ocean Spray members, cutting back production. “We have people deciding not to renovate bogs, deciding not to aggressively farm,” he said.
The cranberry industry last used volume controls to reduce a surplus in 2001. The USDA authorized a 35 percent reduction in output after prices fell to 15 to 20 cents a pound.
Average prices rebounded to 58 cents a pound by 2008, but have fallen to about 30 cents a pound, according to the USDA. Prices vary widely depending on whether growers are independent or in the Ocean Spray cooperative. Growers also receive premiums for color, quality and harvesting earlier or later in the season.
The USDA has forecast the U.S. crop will be 905 million pounds, down 6 percent from 2016. But last year’s crop was a record 962 million pounds. Oregon and Washington are the fourth and fifth top cranberry-producing states, respectively.