Adventures of a small berry Peninsula's signature industry includes many small farms
PENINSULA, MARKHAM - Cranberries have been an important part of Peninsula life for nearly 100 years. The vines that the crimson berries grow on thrive in the soil prevalent in a beach environment. Farmers have also thrived from the money made each year from their crops - that is until recently.
In the last 10 years, prices per pound have dropped dramatically leaving some farmers in a hole. Meanwhile, others succeed. What are the issues facing cranberries farmers on the Peninsula? Where do the berries go once they leave the bog? Perhaps a look at how some farmers deal with the current climate and the local industry will show that there is more to it than a bunch of floating berries.
A family affairClose to 10 people are wading through knee-deep waters, corralling floating berries and sending them up a "ladder" conveyer belt into a large wooden crate in the back of a pick-up truck - without a doubt, it is harvest time again at the Weyl family cranberry bogs.
"This is a family affair, basically. We got four kids and they just all come and help. We like that free labor," said long-time owner Bob Weyl with a laugh.
But that labor is not perfectly free however, most get their payment from a big meal that Weyl's wife Joanne prepares for everyone.
"I hope you guys aren't planning on being done real soon," said Joanne.
"We're done," Bob replied.
"I'm not ready for you!" said Joanne as she started peeling potatoes.
"We just have a great big meal," said Weyl. "That's the only reason everybody comes, so they can have free food."
Weyl became a cranberry farmer in 1968, when he and his wife bought the property they live on to this day. The property came with a small bog located in front of the house. Since then Weyl has expanded the size of his operation, and he and his wife have since retired from their jobs. Weyl said that outside of keeping the weeds out of the bogs, there isn't too much work that goes into keeping it up throughout the year.
"Its just going out there when you feel like you wanna do something and doing it," he said.
Fifteen years ago Weyl added a few more bogs and became a more serious grower - 11 total acres with eight bogs.
"We used to have an orange grove in California and we came up here one year on vacation and looked and liked it," he explained. "Liked it ever since ... good move."
It takes about a week each year to harvest the family bogs at what Bob named Cran-a-Weyl farm (Weyl sounds like "while"). They break it up over two weekends since the volunteer help works during the week. This year it will take them three weekends due to the lack of rain water this year.
A lack of rain has been an issue for many Peninsula cranberry farmers this year. The farmers use rain water, usually stored their own lake or holding pond, to flood their bogs. The vines are then beat in order to get the cranberries to come free and float on the surface of the water until corralled into a machine that carries the berries and distributes them into wooden crates called totes that hold upwards of 1,000 pounds.
Because it has been fairly dry this year, many farmers didn't have enough water stored up to flood their bogs, or at least not more then one bog at a time. Most farmers prefer to have one bog flooded and in the process of corralling while the next bog is being flooded, to speed up the process. Weyl said that he found himself in that situation this year.
"When our lake is full, we can flood a couple of pens at a time," he said. "It affects us some, slows us down a lot. Man, it's been a dry year."
One local farmer, Chuck Winn, didn't start harvesting until last Friday, several weeks after the traditional start of the harvest season at the beginning of October.
The late harvest can help some farmers a little bit financially because the longer the berries stay on the vine, the darker they are, which can yield a slightly higher price per pound.
"You can get three to five cents more per pound if they're real red on the inside of them," said Weyl.
About 10 years ago, the price of cranberries was giving growers upwards of $60 per barrel - a barrel is made up of 100 pounds. Today that price is in the $20 range per barrel. Weyl said that he has always grown cranberries for one reason.
"You didn't make extra money," he said. "There wasn't any extra money, you just made good money. But it's not that way no more."
Weyl said that he thinks the reason that the price-per-pound has decreased so much is because of a new abundance of growers throughout the country jumping on the bandwagon. Weyl has a more nonchalant attitude than most farmers, being retired and not as dependent on the money.
"Well ... can't win 'em all."
That attitude is different though for Weyl's daughter, Julie Rhoads. Weyl sold two-thirds of his farm to Rhoads and her husband about eight years ago - a couple of years before the price dropped.
"I just kept these right straight back, just enough for me," said Weyl of the few bogs he retained. "That gives me vacation money every year. Gives me something to do all the time. It's worked out good."
Rhoads said that at the time she and her husband made the investment, the cranberry industry was booming. She said that she knew her father was planning on selling the farm and hated the idea of it going to someone outside the family.
"I didn't want some stranger out there," said Rhoads.
But so far it has been a mixed bag. At first, Rhoads was making enough money from the harvest that she and her husband didn't have to hold other jobs during the year.
"The first year it is was about $60,000," she said of their profits. "If you can't live on that, there's something wrong."
Since then though, the price has dropped so much that both she and her husband have had to return to work outside of the farm.
"For a couple of years we were able to just work at the farm," said Rhoads. "Now we both have off the farm jobs.
"Cranberries doesn't pay anything anymore. You can't make a living on them like you once were able to. We got in at just the wrong time."
She said that today they only bring home a little more than $20,000 per year from the harvest. And whereas Weyl has used the money made from cranberries for extra things, Rhoads and her family were completely dependent on that money.
"That's just supplemental money for them," said Rhoads of her parents. "For us, it was our main source of income."
Rhoads has taken a job as a chief engineer on a dredge on the Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico for part of the year, while her husband works as a carpenter.
Despite the tough times they have endured so far, Rhoads said they have made the commitment to stick it out because of the investment they have made in the venture. But at the same time she said she keeps a positive attitude. "Yeah, things change, you know. Life changes," she said. "You never know what God is going to throw at you from one day to the next or one year to the next."
Weyl said that the drop in cranberry prices can really affect some farmers, especially those still paying for their property.
"If they owe a lot of money on their land, and you don't get your cranberry prices, they don't have money to make mortgage and there's quite a few that went broke."
He cited several cases in both the Grayland and Bandon, Ore. area - both big cranberry producers on the West Coast - where farmers had their land repossessed by banks. Weyl said that because he has already paid off his land, it doesn't have the same effect on him.
"It don't affect us, except you just don't have the money to go out and blow," he joked.
It is said that farmers who don't own their land and hire labor to help with harvest need at least $35 per barrel to break even - nearly $10 more then the current price.
Weyl brags of his bogs yielding around 200 barrels per acre, more then the local average he said.
"I just depends on how they take care of the bogs and what variety [of cranberry]."
Weyl grows the Pilgrim variety of berry, which he believes produce more fruit than the other two varieties mostly grown on the Peninsula - Steven's and McFarland. Each are different in size of crop, size of berry and color.
"Well, its just like apples," he related. "There's a lot of different kinds of cranberry vines."
To get a cranberry bog started, Weyl said you need to buy the acreage to put your bogs - about an acre and a half per bog - and then buy the vines. Weyl said that the vines can cost anywhere from $1 and $1.50 per pound - you need about a ton and half for an acre - a cost of about $3,000 per acre. The vines, if cared for properly, will last upwards of 100 years said Weyl. It's an initial investment, after that it is just upkeep. Weyl sells some of his vines to other growers for starts, some years yielding over $20,000 on vine sales alone.
"Trips to Vegas!" he said of where a majority of his earnings go.
In his mind, Weyl doesn't buy into the "doom and gloom" that other locals believe about the future of cranberries here on the Peninsula.
Weyl said that the only thing he does worry about is if Ocean Spray sells its juice operation - a rumor going around amongst growers.
"There's a lot of talk about them selling the juice portion of it. If they sold the juice part, I don't know how that would affect us."
He cited growers in Bandon, Ore. who dropped out of the Ocean Spray cooperative and now sell privately to the highest bidders.
"The private's are paying so much more than Ocean Spray is," Weyl said of other juice companies like Welch's. "There's a lot of companies like that and they're paying 50 to 60 cents a pound."
The problem with that idea for locals is that there aren't other buyers available in this area. Ocean Spray is it.
A constant flow of berriesThere is a very acidic smell in the air inside the Ocean Spray receiving station on Sandridge Rd. 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 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.
Make sure that 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 United States 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.