Fruit of the gloom ... or boom?

Rob Antle
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Visions conflict on what future holds for cranberry industry

John Decas has about 50 years of experience in the cranberry industry.

His family company, Massachusetts-based Decas Cranberry Products, processes more than 50 million pounds of berries a year.

But Decas is sounding alarm bells.

"The state of the industry is dire right now - if I had to use one word, that would be the word," Decas says.

Boxes of cranberry plugs await planting at Walter Calloway's Terra Nova farm this week. Newfoundland and Labrador's cranberry industry is in an aggressive growth phase. Photo by Rob Antle/The Telegram

John Decas has about 50 years of experience in the cranberry industry.

His family company, Massachusetts-based Decas Cranberry Products, processes more than 50 million pounds of berries a year.

But Decas is sounding alarm bells.

"The state of the industry is dire right now - if I had to use one word, that would be the word," Decas says.

"And so I would have to conclude that any investment in cranberries right now is a very risky investment, whether it's a grower or a growing co-mpany or a government that's doing it."

Those comments come as Newfoundland and Labrador embarks on an ambitious program to ramp up cranberry production.

While his viewpoint may not be shared by many in the industry, Decas says the numbers back him up.

In 2006 and 2007, Decas says, the price of ingredients such as cranberry concentrate used in juices "started skyrocketing."

According to Decas, food companies began reducing the amount of cranberry content in their products.

A blended juice would use less cranberry, and more of the other fruits.

Then, two years ago, an expected shortage of berries didn't materialize.

Instead, says Decas, "we had a glut" caused by huge crops.

Prices tanked, to less than 30 cents per pound from the roughly 65 cents he was paying two years ago.

Combine all that with the cratering economy, Decas says, and "it's like the perfect storm all came together at once" for the industry.

He says the U.S. government has projected that up to 70 per cent of last year's crop will still be in storage when this year's harvest gets underway in September.

And he thinks the oversupply is only going to get worse.

"It's not a pretty picture right now."

During his five decades in the industry, Decas has seen good times and bad, as the industry goes through cyclical changes of fortune.

But this time is different.

"I just think this recovery is going to be longer than usual," he says.

"Only the strongest among us are going to be able to survive."

He doesn't see any new product on the horizon driving increased cranberry use. New plantings will also increase production in the coming years.

'A visionary thing'

But Decas's gloomy forecast is not shared by others in the industry.

Ocean Spray has pushed forward with its first company-owned farm, planting 125 acres in New Brunswick this summer.

"We desperately need more fruit," Ocean Spray vice-president Paul Stajduhar told a New Brunswick community meeting last January.

According to New Brunswick media reports at the time, Stajduhar said demand for the berries was outstripping supply in the 850-million-pound-a-year industry.

Meanwhile, plans to grow the industry in Newfoundland and Labrador are also ramping up.

Dick Oram, alternative crops co-ordinator with the Department of Natural Resources, says historical cranberry prices provide comfort.

Over the last decade, Oram says, prices have averaged 48 cents Cdn per pound. Newfoundland cranberry farms will be profitable at 40 cents per pound, and 20,000 pounds per acre.

Recent yields have been encouraging, according to Oram - up to 27,000 pounds per acre on some sites.

Grand Falls-Windsor town manager Mike Pinsent is not concerned about the current trough in prices.

The Grand Falls-Windsor town council is the proponent of a $5.8-million project to build 120 acres of cranberry fields in the central region. The feds have kicked in $3 million of that total; the province, $2.2 million.

"We're pretty bullish on the market for cranberries," Pinsent says.

"It's a commodity, just like iron ore or anything else. You've got cycles."

Research and development work has been underway on cranberry production in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1997, he notes.

"You've got to have a bit of vision," Pinsent says.

"This is a visionary thing."

rantle@thetelegram.com




Cash crops

Final in a three-part series on work to develop the local cranberry industry

Organizations: Decas Cranberry Products, Department of Natural Resources, Grand Falls-Windsor town council

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, U.S. Grand Falls

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Recent comments

  • salty dog
    July 20, 2010 - 13:03

    John Decas is not happy about everyone getting in on a little piece of his cranberry monopoly.

  • W
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    He may be right and these things teh govt had better be careful of. We are one of the few jusrisdictions that are doing well globally. The USA is in recession, the rest of Canada are treading water. Alot of shysters will be trying to locate here to take advantage of a fiscally flush government desperate to create new industries and employment.

    Example: LOTT paper. I just hope these Tories are smarter than the ones who tried to grow cucumbers.........a cash crop.......NOT.........although it sounds very similar to cranberries.