Quebec, often associated with maple syrup and apples, is making waves with another fruit: cranberries. The province’s abundant berry bogs, clustered primarily in the St-Louis-de-Blandford region, yield 25 million tons of cranberries annually, generating nearly $20 million for farmers. About half of these cranberries go to the Ocean Spray cooperative, which markets the fruit in a variety of products. Although cultivation of cranberries began in the 19th
century, cranberry sauce only really started in the early 20th
century as a way to preserve broken berries. “There’s no dirty secrets about growing cranberries,” says Hal Brown, the erstwhile moderator of a now inactive cranberry forum at www.cranberrystressline.com
. “It’s the marketing of them that has the dirty secrets.” Marketing fruit involves altering it, often beyond recognition. A few years back, Brown led the charge against a misguided attempt by Ocean Spray to market white cranberries as a delicious new variety of cranberry. “They’re just unripe berries,” fumes Brown. The label on the juice led consumers to believe otherwise: “These all natural, fully ripened
, white cranberries come from the first harvest of the season so they’re milder than traditional red cranberries.” The scam didn’t last long. “We complained at the Federal Trade Commission,” says Brown. “It was an outright lie on the label.” The language has now been altered. White cranberry juice had been part of Ocean Spray’s attempt to cope with a crash in the value of cranberries. Brown says that in the early 1990s they were selling for $80 a barrel; by 2001, when white cranberry juice was launched, they were selling for $12 a barrel. Breaking even takes about $18-22 a barrel. “The crash was a classic case of oversupply,” says Randy Papadellis, Ocean Spray’s new CEO. “It was Economics 101: demand declined, supply kept pouring in, and the price of cranberry declined—quite dramatically.” Growers who were able to weather the crash seem at peace with the ups and downs of their commodity. “The crash was a good thing,” explains Alison Gilmore Carr, a sixth generation Massachusetts cranberry farmer. “It helped people realize who really wanted to do it and who were hobby farmers.” “Growing cranberries used to be a pleasant way of life,” sighs Brown. “It’s pretty, it’s scenic, you could make some money, hire an employee or two, pay them a 30k salary. If prices had stayed up, we could have easily made 300k per year. Thank god my wife is a librarian and I’m a psychotherapist.” Desperate times in the fruit world seem to call for intensified marketing practices. Ocean Spray’s growers recently decided to start advertising and came up with a unique way of spreading their message: a campaign called “Bogs across America.” Over the past few years, they have constructed bogs in several cities in North America (and England) as a way of showing people how cranberries grow. According to their promotional materials, only 28% of Americans have ever heard of a cranberry bog—very few, considering that 10.8 billion cranberries are eaten every holiday season. What follows was overheard at the cranberry bog erected in the courtyard of the Rockefeller Center in November 2006. This is an example of fruit marketing— “Straight from the Bog,” as Ocean Spray’s motto puts it.
Adam Gollner is a Montreal-based journalist. His book, The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession, has just been released by Scribner.