In the days of wooden ships, when whalers went to sea for many months at time, they kept barrels of Vitamin C-rich cranberries on hand to prevent scurvy.
No one here worries much about that gum disease today, but cranberries remain popular for their tart flavor and nutritional value.
Most of this country’s cranberries are grown on 25,000 acres in New England and the Midwest, but Washington’s Pacific and Grays Harbor counties and Oregon’s Clatsop, Coos and Curry counties have about 2,000 acres of cranberry bogs.
The cranberry harvest is at its midpoint, and growers expect an average year.
A 100-pound barrel is likely to bring “pretty darn close to $60,” down nearly 20 percent from last year, said Bob Hitt of the Washington Cranberry Alliance in Grayland.
He predicts the harvest will total about 150,000 barrels, down from 180,000 barrels in 1996.
Most of the growers on Washington’s “Cranberry Coast” belong to Ocean Spray’s cooperative and supply the company’s Ilwaco processing plant.
Cranberries are a costly and risky venture, says Kim Patten, a researcher at the Washington State University experimental bogs. Local growers can expect to gross about $55,000 a year on average, with a net income as low as $20,000.
“Most farmers in this state - definitely the small, multi-generational family farms - less than pay for themselves,” Patten says.
Nonetheless, the Pacific Northwest is expected to gain another 3,000 acres in cranberry production over the next five years, which could create a market surplus, Hitt says.
Producing about 20 acres of cranberries with his wife, Julia, at the third-generation Toad Hall Cranberry Farms, he says would-be cranberry farmers should proceed with caution.
“It’s a long-term, capital-intensive investment,” Hitt says. “Growers need conservative budgets and market strategies.”
Hitt and Patten suggest farmers can get higher monetary yields with dried fruit, jams, jellies, baking mixes and other specialty products.
Some growers and analysts fear a surplus could make it more difficult for the small farms to stay afloat, but Patten says he gets several calls each week from potential growers.
“There’s a certain romance and novelty,” Patten says. “Certainly there’s a lot of opportunity out there, but it’s for, I would say, very few people.”