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Wisconsin cranberry industry in survival mode

Staff writer |
As the U.S. cranberry growers continue to struggle financially despite a huge U.S. government purchase of the tart fruit announced last month, the Wisconsin cranberry industry is set up to survive the economic downturn and increase its market dominance.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending $55 million to buy 68 million pounds of cranberries, about 8 percent of the 2014 harvest, to lessen the impact of a surplus that has gashed the bottom lines of growers, handlers and other businesses in the cranberry industry, Secretary Tom Vilsack said last month.

That was big news for the Wisconsin cranberry industry, which produces more than 60 percent of the U.S. harvest, provides 4,000 jobs and is worth just shy of $1 billion to the state economy each year, according to a report completed this year by the University of California, Davis.

But the U.S. government purchase might not be enough to help growers from some of the other four main cranberry-producing states, Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, because they lack the modernization, size and technology that has boosted production in Wisconsin, said Ed Jesse, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at UW-Madison and a former member of the Cranberry Marketing Committee.

Wisconsin's cranberry industry has added to the glut by increasing production 24.5 percent in 2013 to more than 6 million barrels, which was 67 percent of the nation's crop (8.9 million barrels) that year. The forecast for 2014 is for state production to dip 10.5 percent to 5.4 million barrels. That would be 62.9 percent of the nation's crop that is expected to drop 4.4 percent to 8.6 million barrels.

The surplus reached critical mass after the industry failed to sell 2 million to 3 million barrels of cranberries harvested in each of the past two years, said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.

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