How on earth did the cranberry industry get bogged down in President Trump’s trade wars?
Farmers who grow the Bay State’s most iconic crop had enough problems already, contending with an oversupply that sent prices plunging. Now the little red fruit, staple of Thanksgiving dinners and muffin breakfasts, has been drafted into the trade fights that Trump is picking with China and Europe. As a result, growers face the prospect of losing the hard-won foreign customers seen as key to their long-term future.
The uncertainty has left a sour taste in the mouths of the 6,900 people employed directly or indirectly by the state’s $1.4 billion cranberry industry.
To ease the pain, the federal government should at least make available to cranberry farmers the same kind of financial assistance offered to other growers who have suffered because of the president’s trade policies.
The story has its roots in a cranberry glut that has been suppressing prices and hurting cranberry farmers. The problem is that Americans don’t consume enough juice boxes and vodka cranberries to use up the whole harvest, so growers have been developing new markets overseas. A top target: China, with a burgeoning middle class eager for new culinary flavors.
North American cranberries aren’t native to China, so marketers had to create demand, mostly on their own dime. “You do all the legwork, and start introducing the cranberry,” said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association. “That’s the model. It’s worked very well, but it takes time.” Wick said demand in China was virtually nothing five years ago but is now growing at double-digit pace; exports totalled about $50 million in 2017.
Then Trump came along. Along with scores of other new taxes, the administration kindled a trade war by slapping tariffs on steel from China, Europe, and Canada. China then put retaliatory tariffs in place, including on cranberries. Separately, the European Union has also retaliated by putting tariffs on cranberry juice. (Thanks to the intervention of Representative Bill Keating, who represents the cranberry-growing parts of Massachusetts, the EU at least backed off plans to impose tariffs on dried cranberries).
Now the marketing effort growers have poured into foreign markets will go to waste — or, worse, redound to the benefit of farmers in Quebec, whose berries aren’t subject to the 40 percent tariff now imposed on American berries in China. “Canada does not have a tariff, so Canadian fruit going to those markets has an advantage over the US,” Wick said.
To its credit, the federal government has helped farmers cope by announcing it would buy $32.8 million in cranberries, which amounts to about 2.7 percent of the crop. They’ll be used for school lunches and food banks.
But not all that spending reaches the farmer — processors will take their cut, too. And when corn, cotton, soybean, wheat, almond, cherry, and sorghum growers, for instance, suffered blowback from tariffs, the federal government came forward with direct financial aid to farmers.
Keating, who chairs the Congressional Cranberry Caucus, said that the Agriculture Department expects to hand out a second round of assistance. He’s asking the department to include direct payments to cranberry growers this time. “It’s a critical situation for them,” he said.
The Trump administration imposed tariffs recklessly. Now that the ripple effects are washing up in Massachusetts, the administration needs to cover the costs of the mess it’s making.
Meanwhile, consider having some extra cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving, washing it all down with a cosmopolitan — and helping local farmers stay out of the red.