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Cranberry production expected to rise 6 percent

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BOSTON — The nation's cranberry crop is on track this year to become the second largest on record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Tuesday.

The USDA's annual cranberry forecast calls for 7.35 million 100-pound barrels, up 6 percent from about 6.9 million barrels a year ago. The crop hit a record 7.87 million barrels in 2008.

Strong increases were forecast in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, by far the largest cranberry producing states. But declines were expected in the smaller producing states of New Jersey, Oregon and Washington because of unfavorable weather conditions.

While overall production is higher, industry officials noted that a softening of demand due to the global economy, coupled with a larger crop, could lead to lower prices for farmers.

"Growers are optimistic about the crop, but very cautious about prices," said Jeffrey LaFleur, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association.

"The conventional wisdom is with increased production and demand not moving up as swiftly ... there is going to be a lot of fruit available and therefore it's more competitive and the prices will be lower," said David Farrimond, executive director of the Wareham, Mass.-based Cranberry Marketing Committee, who also noted that harvest is still more than a month away and conditions could change.

In Wisconsin, the nation's largest cranberry producer with about 60 percent of the total crop, production in 2010 was forecast at 4.35 million barrels, a 10 percent increase from last year. The USDA cited favorable weather conditions, including minimal winter damage, an early spring and warm, humid conditions.

"We've had a real warm, wet growing season that has been good for cranberries," said Tom Lochner, executive director of Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.

Growers in the state have planted about 1,500 additional acres of cranberries over the past couple of years, Lochner added.

The forecast called for production of 1.95 million barrels in Massachusetts, up 7 percent from 2009. The USDA cautioned that some growers in Massachusetts were concerned that hot weather and lack of rain could still reduce the potential crop.

"Considering the real challenges we've had this growing season ... to be able to pull off a number like that is going to be pretty good," said LaFleur, whose group represents about 330 growers in Massachusetts.

Production was expected to drop by 10 percent in Oregon and 16 percent in Washington because of a cold, wet spring that delayed the crop and reduced berry size in the Northwest.

New Jersey was expected to see a decline of 5 percent in production, with some growers in that state citing abnormally hot temperatures and the potential for sun scalding.

To help spur demand, Farrimond said, the industry is working harder to promote the health benefits of cranberries and has also urged chefs and food companies to use more of the berries in their recipes.

The committee is also focusing on international efforts. About 26 percent of cranberries are now exported, compared to less than 10 percent about a decade ago, Farrimond said, and the health marketing appears to be paying off.

"I've had some people come up to me in some of the countries where we have been trying to develop increased consumption and they'll say 'Oh, cranberries are good for you.'"