A happy Thanksgiving for Cranberry Caucus, as USDA makes big berry buy

Federal agency doubles purchase to $55 million of cranberries for food pantries, school lunches; Wisconsin is No. 1 producer

Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Sweetened and dried cranberries are the fastest-growing product in the cranberry industry, but oversupply and low prices are making it hard for growers to make a living.

As Americans break out the cranberries for Thanksgiving dinners, the federal government is taking steps to put more of the tart fruit in food pantries and school lunches.

Previous Coverage

Cranberry growers frustrated after feds reject production cuts

Despite a huge oversupply of cranberries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has rejected a recommendation to curb cranberry production, disappointing cranberry growers in Wisconsin.

Cranberry growers struggle for income amid oversupply

A growing oversupply of berries has driven down prices, in some cases to unsustainable levels.

Cranberry industry, growers get creative to drive up demand

Overproduction has prompted cranberry growers and industry leaders to look for creative ways to get people in the United States and other countries to expand the role of cranberries beyond their annual cameo appearance on the Thanksgiving table.

In a win for the Congressional Cranberry Caucus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has  agreed to purchase up to $55 million in cranberry products, double its previous purchase, which was in January. It is expected to pump up to 68 million pounds of surplus cranberries into the diets of low-income children and families.

“Wisconsin produces more cranberries than any other state,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), co-chair of the caucus, said Monday in a press release. “The USDA’s cranberry purchase will support cranberry growers at a time when the markets are especially tough.”

A record crop of cranberries in 2013, about two-third of which were grown in Wisconsin, has been driving down prices to unsustainable levels for some growers.

The USDA rejected a proposal to cut cranberry production levels in August to reduce the surplus. Some state cranberry growers criticized the decision.

Scott Soares, executive director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee, said the agency’s decision to purchase cranberries is likely not related to the rejected proposal. He noted that the USDA has purchased cranberries every year since 2008.

But Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers’ Association, said USDA’s rejection of production cuts did spur subsequent discussions about increasing USDA purchasing levels.

“We look at it as a win-win,” Lochner said. “Obviously, we hope (the purchase) translates into prices that become economically sustainable.” An added benefit, he said, is that more Americans will have “access to a healthy, nutritious product they can incorporate into their diet.”

Baldwin joined with caucus members from both parties in writing a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in mid-November. It asked the agency to increase its cranberry buys to help growers dealing with record crop levels and decreasing prices.

Purchasing “cranberry products will directly assist these families and regional economies in weathering impact of the aforementioned factors on cranberry commodity prices,” the letter stated. It was signed by 22 members of Congress, including fellow Wisconsin Reps. Reid Ribble (R-Sherwood), Sean Duffy (R-Wausau), Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) and Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac).

Independent cranberry grower Linda Prehn said a purchase like this is “wonderful” in situations of oversupply.

“It helps everybody out,” Prehn said. “It’s a health product for kids to get whether in juice or dried (cranberries), and I think it’s a good use of an oversupply crop.”

But Prehn said the best answer to the industry’s oversupply is not through production cuts or USDA purchases, but growing the demand for cranberries worldwide.

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