ELLSWORTH — Blueberries weren’t the only local harvest that suffered from the hot, dry summer. Cranberries — less popular and profitable than their blue brethren — also faced challenges, according to area growers in mid-harvest, if they were harvesting at all.
“The weather’s been a real challenge,” said Lynch Hill Farms’ Courtney Hammond, echoing what other growers were reporting. “I’m gonna say my volume’s not as big as it could be.”
That said, Hammond noted his berries were showing “good color” as the harvest began at the Harrington farm. And, while the number of barrels might not be all he hoped for, Hammond said he still expects to harvest 12,000 to 14,000 pounds, with wholesale prices seeing only a “little bit” of an increase to cover the minimum wage increase.
Hammond operates a dry bog (“Ours are just as dry as a blueberry field”) and dry picks using a mechanical harvester for the fresh cranberry market, supplying grocery stores and farmers markets around the state. And, as farmers of crops from berries to organic beef are doing, Hammond’s also grown a mail order business. “It’s fairly robust,” he said. “As long as we can keep [the cranberries] in cold storage, we usually have them to mid-April.”
Down the road in Columbia Falls, Christine and John Alexander were harvesting at Sugar Hill Cranberry Co., where they’ve grown for the last 14 years, although the couple are early in their fifth decade as cranberry farmers.
“It hasn’t been a great growing year,” Christine said, as John handled the mechanical harvester. “There was frost in June, and that had a negative impact on pollination.”
And in the “excessive heat” of August, their underground irrigation system couldn’t keep the vines cool enough.
“It was so hot, when we’d go [to check the plants], the temperature would be over 100 degrees,” Christine said, from heat reflecting off the sandy terrain the berries thrive in.
While a typical harvest yields 50,000 to 80,000 pounds, Christine said the 2020 harvest will bring in “maybe 20,000 pounds.”
The Alexanders usually grow two varieties for processing into juice and concentrates, but with prices “historically low,” they passed on that this season and only grew for the fresh and frozen markets. Nearing retirement and “looking for an exit strategy,” the Alexanders still hope for a better season in 2021, Christine said. That is, unless they can sell their farm. “If not, we’ll just keep going.”
Growing cranberries has mainly been a Washington County endeavor since cranberry farming returned to Maine in the 2000s, after disease, pests, decreased demand and the popularity of the “new canned cranberry sauce” decimated the industry in the early 1900s, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Still, Hancock County has its cranberry bogs, too.
In Trenton, Snuggle Magic Cranberry Farm, which usually offers pick-your-own cranberries, decided to close down to the public for COVID-19 reasons, owner Leslie Edwards said, although she declined to discuss this year’s harvest.
For Kipp and Dale Quinby, who started organic Red Bog Cranberries on two established dry bogs in Sedgwick last year and had a solid first harvest, this year’s conditions proved to be too difficult and their crop failed.
“Between late spring frosts, the drought, and hot and humid weather, the fruit that did set has now succumbed to a fruit pathogen and isn’t sellable,” Kipp posted Sept. 30 on the Red Bog Facebook page, adding, “Even sadder, as we’ve called other small bogs in the area to ask if we could refer you on, we’ve found that they’re in the same boat.”
The two sisters are now trying to figure out where and how they went wrong. “It’s all conjecture for us,” Kipp said. “We’re feeling our way around possible answers.”
She did say that a poor flowering in the fall and a late spring frost hurt pollination. Other problems, including a fungal disease, grew into “a cascade of possible factors.” She included their inexperience as one of those factors but, with a day job as a fisherman, she still sounded cheerful.
“We’re taking it easy and cautiously at the moment,” she said. “I think we’ll figure it out…It emphasizes we really do need to make sure tools are in place to mitigate a poor season.”