Christmas cranberries glut means big opportunity for carriers

At least one major carrier is buying up big as farmers find it tough

With cranberry prices at the lowest in a half century, Nodji Van Wychen has been forced to cut back on fertilizer, staff and pollinating bees just to keep her farm going near Pittsville, Wisconsin. Other cranberry growers are finding it easier to sell the farm to John Hancock LifeInsurance Co. and its ever-expanding agriculture group.

"We pretty much cut everything in half," the third- generation farmer said from her home at the family’s 110-acre (45-hectare) marsh northwest of Milwaukee. It’s the worst environment she’s seen since 1959 when farmers dumped their entire crop amid a health scare. Van Wychen doesn’t want to sell the operation, but admits the future of cranberries may not include family growers. "There are many smaller farmers that are finding that they literally cannot make it," she said.

As cranberry season reaches its zenith over the Christmas holiday, farmers are increasingly selling family-owned cranberry bogs -- the large tracts of wetland where the bobbing red fruit grow -- to larger operators. One buyer name that reigns in these parts is John Hancock, whose agricultural investment group is actively looking for distressed cranberry operations to add to its $2.5 billion in assets.

"Right now the cranberry industry is under pressure," Oliver Williams, president of the agriculture unit, said by phone from Boston. "We can find a cranberry farm that needs to be rejuvenated, has to be replanted, we can go in and buy that property. It’s the typical supply-demand response." The investor group has about 150 employees, most of them farmers.

Employees at the unit of Toronto-based insurer Manulife Financial Corp. are in constant conversation with other farmers, scoping out opportunities such as the 180-acre cranberry bog in Wisconsin the company bought in September. It’s now part of the 2,300 acres of cranberries that it manages for pension funds and other institutional investors, among 300,000 acres of other assets that include walnuts, corn and wheat across the U.S., Australia, and Canada.

Agriculture is a long-term investment, letting Hancock withstand periods of low returns for clients with decades-long liabilities. The average annual return on Hancock Agriculture’s portfolio for the last decade was 14 percent, compared with 7.5 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

"It’s not about where is the industry today?’ but ‘do you believe in the industry long-term?’" Williams said.

The $3.55 billion industry is still reeling from 2013, when a record 8.8 million barrels of cranberries was harvested in the U.S., an 11 percent jump from the prior year, according to the Cranberry Marketing Committee, the industry group that promotes the berries. The bright red fruit flooded the market, pushing down prices as low as $8 per 100-pound (45-kilogram) barrel, from about $40 in 2010, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. It costs about $30 a barrel to produce. Last year’s harvest came in at 8.1 million barrels, the second-highest ever.

About a dozen marshes were abandoned in 2015, where farmers simply declared bankruptcy and walked away, according to Michelle Hogan, executive director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee. About 30 farms have been sold nationwide, with about half in Wisconsin, she said.

"It’s going to be a rough ride for the next few years," said Tom Lochner, executive director of the commodity’s association in Wisconsin, the U.S. state that produces more than half the world’s supply of cranberries. Aside from overproduction, farmers face stagnant local demand as Americans still think of cranberries as a holiday fruit, eating a third of the harvest over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The average American consumes about two pounds of cranberries a year, relatively unchanged for at least a decade, as cranberries compete with other healthy fruits including pomegranates. So farmers are looking abroad for growth, with about 35 percent of local production shipped overseas, according to the cranberry marketing organization. About a third of it lands in the U.K., Germany and France.

One of the fastest-growing markets is China, where exports jumped 41 percent this season, according to the marketing committee. The industry group is focusing on millennial women in cities like Beijing where a burgeoning middle class can afford the specialty item. The group has a budget of about $1 million to attend trade shows and start online advertising campaigns there. Ocean Spray, the U.S. cooperative of cranberry and grapefruit farmers, this year opened a shop on Alibaba, China’s largest online retailer.

Foreign expansion, along with a slowdown in production, may help buoy prices. It’s welcome news for Van Wychen and her family, who all pitched in more than ever on the marsh this year to plant and harvest the fruit that goes into her jellied cranberry -- the centerpiece of Christmas dinner with a recipe passed down from her grandmother.

"As farmers, we learn to grow them so well that there’s an oversupply," she said. "The cranberry marsh is a wonderful place to live and raise a family and I want that for the next generation but it’s just kind of tough times right now."

Bloomberg News
Katia Dmitrieva​

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