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Cranberry Farmer Says Harvest Is Great, But Business Is Struggling To Survive


Massachusetts cranberry growers are halfway through this year's harvest season. It's been a good crop so far. But they're worried about how low fruit prices are affecting the industry in the state. Hayley Fager from member station WCAI visits a cranberry farmer, and she has this report.

HAYLEY FAGER, BYLINE: The leaves have just started to turn orange and yellow in Southeastern Massachusetts. I'm on a cranberry farm with Steve Ward, a second-generation grower in Middleborough. His 22-year-old son Justin Ward is out here today harvesting. Justin's already started up the pump and flooded the cranberry field.

JUSTIN WARD: Before we got onto that bog, I said as long as you don't fall in the ditch, we'll be OK. Well, he fell in the ditch (laughter).

FAGER: That's part of the whole harvesting process. Somebody always falls into the ditch. Picking machines remove the berries from the bushes, and the fruit floats to the top. Then it gets corralled into a big ring.


FAGER: I put on some waders and walk into the water with Steve. The pump sucks the berries up a tube.

STEVE WARD: When I talk to little kids, I say it's like a whirlpool sucking everything in.

FAGER: Steve rakes the berries toward the suction box.


FAGER: The fruit moves up through a washing system and onto a truck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome, everyone, to the cranberry harvest festival by Makepeace.

FAGER: I first saw this process at the 15th cranberry harvest festival, where I met Steve a few weeks ago. He says working on the bogs is hard and can be kind of lonely.

S. WARD: When I come to something like this, it reinvigorates me. The excitement that someone shows on their face when I talk about something that, I think, is kind of day-to-day, almost kind of boring at times, makes me feel good, makes me feel needed.

FAGER: The event brings nearly 30,000 people to the small town of Wareham, Mass. You can take a helicopter ride over the fields and even walk into the bogs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We are going to go wade in the cranberries.

FAGER: But this year was the festival's last, and that's a sign of bigger changes in the industry. Nationally, cranberry revenues have dropped. And farmers who staff the event just can't afford to take a week off from harvesting. The problem is worse for Massachusetts growers because most of the bogs here are natural, which makes them less efficient than man-made bogs in places like Wisconsin or Canada. Farmers here are banking on state funding to upgrade their bogs.

S. WARD: If we don't do that, other parts of the world and other parts of the country are going to put us out of business.

FAGER: Steve has mixed feelings about his son entering a struggling industry. But Justin says this job makes him happy.

J. WARD: I'm hoping to do it as long as I can, you know? This is really fun for me.

FAGER: Every year, they go out together when the first cranberries are ready to taste. And they find the very best berry that they can. And then Steve takes that perfect berry, and he holds it up over his head.

S. WARD: Now, Justin usually doesn't jump in and say it with me because he's laughing so hard.

J. WARD: Yeah.

S. WARD: But I'll yell at the top of my lungs, first cranberry of the season.

FAGER: Even now Justin is laughing at his dad.

S. WARD: And Justin says, dad, why do you have to do it so loud? The neighbors are going to hear us (laughter). It has to be that way. The whole world has to hear it.

FAGER: Steve and Justin Ward are doing everything they can to stay in business. They say they'll be out here every year for their own harvest celebration. For NPR News, I'm Hayley Fager in southeastern Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF RY COODER SONG, "JESUS AND WOODY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hayley Fager