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The Cranberry Conundrum

As the official fruit of Massachusetts, cranberries have been essential to the state’s culture and economy for thousands of years. Cranberries are the most significant agricultural crop produced in Massachusetts, with the industry generating 7,000 jobs and $70 million annually. While demand for the fruit has been steadily increasing as cranberry juice and dried cranberries have become more popular, a surplus combined with changes in the climate has caused raw prices to drop nearly 60% over the last decade. This has put pressure on the 375 cranberry growers across the state, many of whom tend to small multigenerational farms. The volatility of the cranberry market makes it difficult for these growers to earn a steady living. Additionally, Indigenous peoples who have harvested wild cranberries for millennia may lose the ability to engage in important traditions. 

 Massachusetts grows approximately one quarter of the nation’s cranberry crop, second only to Wisconsin. Most production is concentrated in the South Shore, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. Cranberries grow well in sandy soils with high acidity. These conditions are abundant across Southeastern Massachusetts because during the last ice age, receding glaciers scattered kettle ponds and bogs across the landscape. Decaying matter at the bottom of these bodies of water created an acidic environment ideal for cranberry cultivation. 

 Unfortunately, patterns of climate change in the Northeast may soon make Massachusetts inhospitable for cranberries, a fruit which is quite sensitive to changes in temperature, precipitation, and seasonality. Since the industrial revolution, the Northeastern U.S. has experienced acute warming. Average annual temperatures in the region have increased by four degrees Fahrenheit, double the global average. By 2050, it’s expected the Northeast will be five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than historic averages. Rising temperatures are dangerous for cranberries. During the summer months, bogs are routinely 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the air. When temperatures soar above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it is possible for cranberries to scald while still on the vine. This damages their flesh and makes them unfit for harvest. Also, hot weather can prevent perennial plants such as cranberries from efficiently photosynthesizing, which could slow down growth rates and reduce yields. 

 Droughts also pose serious problems for cranberries, since their production is water intensive. Not only is lots of water required to support their initial growth, but during the harvest season growers flood the bogs, which allows the berries to float to the surface for easier collection. As temperatures rise and the climate gets drier, farmers are less able to rely on regular rainfall and must turn to irrigation, which is more expensive. Irrigation also comes with its own problems, such as surface and groundwater pollution, erosion, and eutrophication in nearby waterways due to the influx of agricultural nutrients. The irregular precipitation pattern of droughts followed by intense storms that is brought on by climate change is also harmful to cranberries. The plants are unable to absorb large quantities of water at once, so even after dry periods, large dumps of water are unhelpful. 

 In the winter, lack of ice due to warmer temperatures also disrupts patterns of cranberry growth. Growers routinely drive onto the ice and spread sand over frozen bogs every few years, which is called ice sanding. When the ice melts, sand falls into the bog and buries debris and pests. This also encourages new growth by stimulating roots. Without sufficient ice, this technique is difficult to replicate. Growers must instead use barges to drop the sand overtop the bogs, but this is less efficient and less effective. Ice also helps greatly with temperature regulation. In winter, frozen bogs protect the plants by keeping them around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, since there is less ice, farmers have to carefully monitor bog temperatures and be ready to flood the bogs to protect the berries at a moment’s notice. 

 Perhaps the greatest threat to cranberries is the changing seasonality brought on by climate change. The growth cycle of cranberries is incredibly sensitive to temperature changes, which is how their different stages of maturation are initiated. Because temperatures are now warmer in the spring, growers have seen buds arriving about two weeks earlier than usual. Additionally, warmer temperatures in the fall have extended the harvest well into November. This longer season makes the plants more vulnerable to both late and early frosts, which causes significant damage to the plants. Cranberries rely heavily on periods of winter dormancy to cue yearly growth cycles. Changing day lengths and temperatures typically stimulate their buds to mature at the proper time. If enough chilling does not occur over the winter, the plants are not able to break dormancy in the spring, which prevents new flowering in the next season and reduces productivity. 

 There are solutions farmers can use to make their cranberry crops more resilient to changes in climate, but this takes added time and money that is not available to most small family businesses. As a result, many of them expect the possibility of having to sell off their farms and move into other industries. The plight of cranberries would also harm the Indigenous communities of Massachusetts, who gather wild cranberries to this day. The Algonquin call the fruit saadatmanesh, and the Wampanoag and Lenni-Lenape call it ibimi. For 12,000 years they have used cranberries for food, medicine, and dyes. On Martha’s Vineyard each October, the Wampanoag Tribe observes Cranberry Day to celebrate the harvest. With cranberries being such a traditional foraged crop and industry in Massachusetts, climate change threatens ways of life for both Indigenous peoples and small growers. 

 Looking to the future, it’s unclear whether cranberries will be able to thrive in Massachusetts as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. Rising temperatures will eventually cause the growth range to extend further north. This will disturb the current distribution of the berries, making them viable only in colder regions. Surprisingly, a study conducted by researchers at Boston College found that cranberry farmers are less likely to be worried about climate change than the general public. Indigenous communities, however, are hoping to be more proactive. According to Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chair of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, “We need to really go back and see what today’s science dictates and balance that with our traditional practices and our knowledge of any natural resource.” It is likely that without such action, within the next century, the state best known for its cranberries will not be able to support them anymore.

 

Sources:

 Borunda, A. (2020, November 25) Climate change is coming for New England’s cranberries. National Geographic. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/climate-change-affecting-massachusetts-cranberries

 FGN. (20201, August 13) Massachusetts cranberry growers forecast an average crop this season. Fruit Growers News. Retrieved October 13, 2021 from https://fruitgrowersnews.com/news/massachusetts-cranberry-growers-forecast-an-average-crop-this-season/

 Gareau, B.J., Huang, X., & Gareau, T.P. (2018, December 12) Social and ecological conditions of cranberry production and climate change attitudes in New England. Public Library of Science. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0207237

 Where Tradition Meets Innovation. Massachusetts Cranberries. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.cranberries.org/history

 Schlossberg, T. (2020, November 18) How climate change is complicating a Thanksgiving staple, The Washington Post. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/11/18/climate-change-cranberries-thanksgiving/

 UMass Amherst. (2021) The Cranberry. UMass Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://ag.umass.edu/cranberry/about/cranberry

 USDA. (June 2019) Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts 2018 Summary. United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Todays_Reports/reports/ncit0619.pdf

 

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