Peninsula's crimson produce travels far and wide

An Ocean Spray receiving station employee is reflected in a mirror as he gives the okay to dump more cranberries into the processing machine. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

Adventures of a small berry: Part 2

PENINSULA, MARKHAM - There is a very acidic smell in the air inside the Ocean Spray receiving station on Sandridge Road from all the berries - they process about 5.6 million pounds per year on average.

"Sometimes more, sometimes less," said plant manager Steve Kelly.

Kelly said that is actually a small number in terms of cranberry production - the Peninsula is the smallest growing area in the Ocean Spray company. The other major growing area in Washington, just up the road in Grayland, produces about twice as much as the Peninsula.

Once the berries are harvested by local farmers, they are brought to the station, which has been operating since the 1960s. They are cleaned, put in larger totes, and then sent to a cold storage facility in Forest Grove, Ore. From there they are taken to an Ocean Spray plant in Markham, near Aberdeen, where they are made into juice and cranberry sauce.

When they arrive, the berries are poured into a large bin with a conveyer belt on the bottom that moves the berries to a ladder that carries them up to a brush washer that cleans the berries and removes a majority of the vines that may still be attached. They are then sorted for color and size, and then loaded into 1,300 pound totes for transport to cold storage.

Farms dropping off berries on a recent day included Blue Heron farm - owned by the Gray family - and Cranwood farm - which is owned by the Pierson family.

Woody Pierson delivered his berries by way of dump truck - the family also owns Pierson and Son Construction. He and his wife Carol brought three truckloads that day - around 270 barrels per truckload. They had just started harvesting two days prior due to the water shortage.

"The more water, the faster it goes," said Carol Pierson.

She said she didn't mind waiting because of the aged, darker color fruit drawing a little higher price.

But the rain didn't affect the receiving station as much as Kelly thought it might have originally. Kelly had contemplated having to stay open a little longer than usual this year - the station is only open for about a month each year from the beginning of October to the beginning of November - due to the delay some farmers experienced.

"It slowed them down a little bit, but no one's been stopped by a lack of water. And now that we've had some rain, everybody seems to be doing just fine."

He said it turned out to be better then last year, where they were even shorter on water.

"We were concerned about that earlier because of the lack of water," he said. "We're usually open for about 32 days, and we'll be in that neighborhood this year too."

The season starts and ends slowly for the workers at the receiving station, with an increased period of activity in the middle for about 10 days - a phase they are just entering.

"We're just at the very beginning of that now," said Kelly. "Last night we were here till about 10 o'clock."

There are a total of 16 employees that work one shift. All of which, including Kelly, are part-time labor. They have forklift drivers, a binner who fills the totes, a weigher who weighs the totes, box builders and a brush operator.

In order to rate the color of the berries, a color test is performed. A sample is taken from each lot and is rated between a one and a six in quality.

"They get an incentive, the more color, you get slightly more for your berries," said Kelly.

They want the darker berries to even out the color in the juice. This is due to the fact that berries from growers in the east, Wisconsin is another big producer, are a lighter color and the darker berries help even out that color.

Ocean Spray: How it's put together

Ocean Spray is an agricultural cooperative that is owned by the growers and is divided into shares - how much of the company you own depends on how much fruit you produce.

"The bigger the grower, the more shares he has," said Kelly, who has worked for the company for five years. "It's not a public company. There's no public stock."

The growers vote on policy changes, a reason why Kelly thinks that the talk of selling the company is false.

"A sale couldn't go through unless the growers voted to approve that sale. Those are speculations made by different growers. As far as I know they haven't even talked to anybody."

As far as the situation with the price-per-pound right now, Kelly said he could not give an answer as to why there has been such a drop other than the fact that there are just more cranberries available now. He also said he could not give a current price-per-pound for this year because that price is determined at the end of the selling cycle.

"They [Ocean Spray] take the berries and they sell them for a period of over 13 months."

The growers receive payments throughout that time as the berries are marketed and receive a final payment at the end of that "pool" year. The final price-per-pound is determined by how much they made in that pool year. Last year's cycle ends in February, which Kelly guessed would close at around $26 per barrel.

"It's just a guess until they finalize it," he said.

Making sure nobody runs out of sauce at Thanksgiving time

After the cranberries are processed at the receiving station in Long Beach, they are transferred to a cold storage facility in Forest Grove, Ore. until they are needed at the processing plant located in Markham, 11 miles outside of Aberdeen. There, the Peninsula's stock of cranberries are turned into juice concentrate and cranberry sauce. The plant also packages whole berries that are harvested in the Grayland area, located 10 miles south of Markham

The plant has cold storage of their own but can only hold about 50,000 barrels at a time.

"As we need them during the year we'll bring them up here and process them," said plant manager Bob Radford of the Peninsula berries.

The Markham plant has been open since the 1940s. They used to also bottle juice there as well, until about five years ago when a new bottling plant opened in Henderson, Nev. in order to be closer to California, which holds a tenth of the juice market in the United States. Most of the juice concentrate they produce in Markham ends up in Henderson for bottling.

Markham is out of the way. The plant was put there to be close to the Grayland and Peninsula growers, the biggest growing areas in Washington - there are a few small growers in the Ocean Shores and Whatcom County areas as well.

"Grayland is a big area, Long Beach is second biggest," said Radford.

Peninsula growers make up roughly six percent of the berries produced on the west coast for Ocean Spray, the smallest such percentage in the company. The largest producer in western North America is actually grown in British Columbia.

The biggest percentage of growers on the west coast are actually grown on the coast. Radford said this is because the soil near the beach is ideal for growing the berry vines.

Radford also explained that the Grayland-area growers aren't affected by a lack of water like Peninsula farmers are, because they don't flood their bogs. The Grayland farmers "dry-pick" their berries using machines that look similar to rototillers. They do this because many of the bogs are located right next to each other. Many of these dry-picked berries are used for fresh whole-berry packaging.

A tour of the facility finds quite an operation, one that is really picking up as the holiday season approaches. The receiving and cold storage area of the plant smells almost like a winery right now, as it is filled with ripe berries stored in wooden crates.

The berries are poured into a hydro-lift system that defrosts the fruit and carries them up into the area where they are pressed for juice and cooked into sauce. To make juice, the berries are loaded into large bins that spin the berries along with rice hulls that help squeeze the fruit.

"When you press it, it allows the juice to flow out," Radford said of the system.

The berries and the hulls are kept in the press for about 40 minutes. It also has an air bladder inside which expands and contracts.

The biggest part of the plant is the cranberry sauce wing and storage. They run all year long, but have their busiest time around the holiday season, including Thanksgiving. They produce about one-third of the cranberry sauce that Ocean Spray sells - the rest comes out of Wisconsin.

Hot water and sugar cooks the berries up and is then canned. The sauce has a jellied consistency when it cools. Radford explained that they regularly check the consistency of the sauce.

"We dump a can out and put a weight on it and time how long it takes for the weight to fall through," Radford explained. "We're checking jells all the time."

Company policy dictates that there are to be no photographs taken inside the plant. This is because there is some equipment they use that they don't want their competitors to see. One of the newest such devices is a type of micro-filtration system used for reverse osmosis when concentrating the juice - it siphons the water from the juice. Another device is located in an annex building on site used for processing and packaging whole berries. If the cranberries make it passed a sorting machine - built in the 1910s and constructed of wood, which checks for size - they are passed under a camera that checks for color. If a berry is not dark enough it is removed from the assembly line by a shot of air. The camera that makes these determinations is the same installed in the cruise missiles used by the U.S. military - Ocean Spray purchased the technology from the defense department.

Many of the whole packaged berries are sent to other countries now, including Great Britain. Radford said that they don't have a Thanksgiving holiday, but they do have what is called "Game Season," which kicks off the harvest time.

"We sell quite a bit of cranberries over there, surprisingly," said Radford. "This is a native North American fruit."

In fact, according to Radford, cranberries are one of only three native fruits sold commercially - the other two are blueberries and concord grapes.

The U.S. doesn't have Game Season, we have Thanksgiving - a holiday that the Markham plant lives for.

They produce nearly a million cases of cranberry sauce each year. They produce both the consumer-sized 12 ounce cans, as well as the larger #10 cans, used by restaurants and other institutions. The Markham plant has a warehouse that stores the cases of sauce ready for shipment. Some are sent to distribution centers, while others are shipped directly to stores.

"This time of year they go straight to the stores," including places like Sid's Market said Radford. "There's not a whole lot of empty room here."

Right now they are close to capacity in storage.

"We want to make sure that nobody runs out of sauce at Thanksgiving time," he said.

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