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Cranberry Crunch

November 14, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

Cranberries used to be a nightmare to sell. People ate them only two days of the year--Thanksgiving and Christmas. Today, selling the berries can still be a problem, but for the opposite reason.

"We've done such a good job marketing cranberry as a flavor that there is now a tremendous demand for it, much higher than we can possibly supply," says Skip Colcord, manager of marketing communications for Ocean Spray, a co-op of cranberry growers that sells about 75% of the cranberries grown in North America.

"Most times in farming, you're in a situation where you say, 'We've got too much of fill-in-the-blank, how do we create a market for this oversupply?' " Colcord says. "I can't think of too many situations in agriculture in this country where you have too much demand and not enough supply."

The culprit, of course, is cranberry juice. More than 80% of the cranberry harvest is processed into juice or preserves today; 20 years ago, it was 50%. Demand is so intense that prices for juice berries are only slightly lower than those for berries to be sold whole. This is not at all the same with most fruits and vegetables.

How much demand for cranberry juice is there? Cranberry acreage has doubled since 1978, and the fresh harvest has fallen by half.

In fact, it's a little surprising that cranberries are sold fresh at all. For processing, cranberries are wet-harvested; the bogs they are grown in are flooded and the berries are raked loose to float to the top. Because wet harvesting can lead to spoilage problems if the berries aren't used right away, cranberries for the fresh crop are dry-harvested, meaning the bushes are raked and picked by machine, which is much less efficient.

After initially optimistic predictions, it turns out this year's crop will be about the same size as last year's. That means retail prices of around $2 per 12-ounce bag.

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