You could lose hours of your life trying to find fresh organic cranberries for your Thanksgiving relish. Organic growers produced about 2.8 million pounds of the tart berries in 2016, a mere 0.3 percent of the overall market, according to a report by IndexBox, a market research publisher.
Because they are grown on vines in wetlands or bogs, cranberries are susceptible to an impressive suite of pests, fungal pathogens and weeds that are difficult to control, which makes organic growing particularly arduous.
That hasn’t stopped a small but determined band of farmers in Oregon and Washington from trying. There are now 11 cranberry farms in the two states that are certified organic, up from four in 2002, according to data from the USDA National Organic Program’s Integrity Database, and there are 48 such farms nationwide.
Richard Schmidt, a relative newcomer to the organic cranberry business, finds weeds particularly vexing. “We need a silver bullet that can control the weeds and leave the cranberries alone,” he said.
Nearly three years ago, Schmidt bought his 64-acre farm in Bandon, along the Oregon coast, after retiring from the tire business. The previous owners had already begun transitioning some of the cranberry bogs to organic, a three-year process that involves using no pest, fungal or weed controls that are prohibited by USDA organic standards.
Schmidt decided to continue the move toward organic. Since he’s farming largely as a hobby and has money to invest in the business, he was able to give his cranberries what he called the “Cadillac experience,” deploying double or triple the recommended amount of approved fertilizers and pest controls like Peruvian bird guano and organic-compliant insecticide.
His method appears to be working: In 2016, the farm’s last year of transitioning to organic, he harvested 126,000 pounds of cranberries from 16 acres. This year, those same bogs produced 226,000 pounds of berries.
Across the U.S., the cranberry market is dominated by Ocean Spray, a cooperative owned by 700 growers. Aside from a few organic growers in Canada, Ocean Spray mostly sells conventional cranberries, with less stringent standards for fungal, pest and weed controls. Ocean Spray spokesperson Kellyanne Dignan said the cooperative’s growers are “excellent stewards of the land” driven by what consumers want.
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Chemicals commonly used on cranberries include diazinon, a pesticide that controls insects on a range of fruit, vegetable, nut and field crops. The USDA Pesticide Data Program found that 5 percent of conventional cranberries sampled in 2016 had traces of diazinon. The pesticide was banned for residential use in 2005 based on the risk it posed to human health, though it is still allowed in agriculture.