PEI·Video

Dry weather and low prices make for a tough year for P.E.I. cranberries

Each year in late October, six football-field sized bogs at Frank Johnston's cranberry operation are flooded to allow the berries to float to the top and be harvested.

Growers optimistic as prices inch up

Some P.E.I. cranberry growers are harvesting a good crop despite dry conditions this summer. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Each year in late October, six football-field sized bogs at Frank Johnston's cranberry operation are flooded to allow the berries to float to the top and be harvested.

Frank Johnston holds a handful of cranberries scooped up from his flooded bog. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"It takes several millions gallons of water to flood one field," said Johnston, one of the biggest of the dozen or so cranberry growers on P.E.I.

Johnston farms about 25 acres on his six fields in Point Deroche on the Island's North Shore.

The lack of rain has been hard on growers, he said, but he's fortunate he has a reservoir, even if it's low after a dry summer. 

Tag along as the cranberry harvest gets underway on P.E.I. 0:58

Other growers aren't so lucky, including one who won't harvest a crop this season because there was not enough rain this summer for the plants, or to float the berries.

Prices around 25-30 cents per pound

Another challenge faced by Johnston and other cranberry growers is low prices.

"The market is at the bottom," Johnston said. "It's been wallowing around the bottom now for two or three years."

In good years, before there was a glut of berries on the market, growers got as much as $1.15 a pound.

Johnston figures they'll get a lot less for this year's crop. "Maybe 25 to 30 cents a pound," he said.

Not good, when the cost of production hovers around 40 cents a pound.

'The water aids in harvesting,' says Johnston. 'It eliminates a lot of fruit damage.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

However, Johnson is hopeful that will turn around. Prices have been inching up over the past couple of years. So rather than cutting back production, he is adding more fields, hoping to lower his costs.

"It takes about three years for them to produce," Johnston said. "We'll try to get them in next spring."

'Knocks the cranberries off'

Johnston seems at home bringing in the harvest. He spends hours on his little machine in the ankle-deep flooded fields. 

"The machine is called a slipper and it runs along and knocks the cranberries off of the plant and then they float to the surface."

Workers use booms to corral the cranberries closer to a huge underwater pump that will carry the berries to a truck waiting nearby. (Pat Martel/CBC)

It's a peaceful setting, with a carpet of floating red berries covering the fields.

'Fresh air and sunshine'

"Yes, a special light early in the morning," said Johnston. "Just at daybreak, it's pretty nice if the sun's at the right angle."

Being outside all day also has its benefits. "It's fresh air and sunshine," Johnston said. "It's an enjoyable business to be in." 

As quickly as the season begins, it's over in just a few days. 

A worker spreads the cranberries as they come off the conveyor belt into the truck. Enough is scooped off each field to fill about two truckloads. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The floating cranberries are corralled into one area of each field, where a huge vacuum sucks the berries up and conveys them to a waiting truck destined for Wyman's processing plant in Morell, P.E.I.

Within two or three hours the berries will be frozen

Johnston is hoping for more rain next summer, and for higher prices.

"50 or 60 cents a pound is fair." 

About the Author

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning where he was a writer-broadcaster and producer. He joined the web team recently to share his passion for great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He retired in Oct. 2019.