In what could be seen as a boon to real estate developers in Southeastern Massachusetts but a bust for open space and agricultural advocates, officials are predicting as much as 25 percent of the Bay State’s land currently used for growing cranberries could be developed over the next few years. The realization that the land may be converted comes as cranberry growers look for other sources of income as prices for their produce plummet.

“That is a very real possibility,” said Chris Phillips, a spokesman with Lakeville-based Ocean Spray, a marketing cooperative owned by more than 925 cranberry and grapefruit growers in the United States and Canada who produce the fruit used in Ocean Spray products. “There’s the combination of the best of economic times for real estate combined with pressures put on the cranberry industry. On Cape Cod especially, there are land development pressures, and these farms are expensive to operate.”

According to state Food and Agricultural Commissioner Jonathan Healy, cranberry growers were sometimes getting $70 per 100-pound barrel of cranberries they produced just two to three years ago. Last year, that figure fell to about $55 per barrel before plummeting this year to $10 to $15 per barrel, as low as one-third the $30 per barrel costs to produce the cranberries. The falling price of cranberries, he said, has farmers across Massachusetts scrambling for ways to make ends meet, and many are considering selling off part or all of their land to eager real estate developers in hopes of surviving.

“There are quite a few bogs that are not going to be profitable and viable in the future,” Healy said. “I can’t make monolithic comments like that about the entire industry, because a strong component of farms will find a way to work it out, and some will be somewhere in the middle … but some are getting ready to go [out of business] as we speak.”

Healy said First Pioneer Farm Credit, the top financial services cooperative for the agriculture industry in the Northeast, expects one out of every four cranberry bogs in the Bay State will not exist four years from now.

“That doesn’t mean everyone is going to build houses; some might keep the land as open space,” Healy said. “But there is no question that there is quite a lot of real estate activity going on in Southeastern Massachusetts right now.”

Ultimate Train Wreck
With developable land at less of a premium in that region of the state compared with other areas, the Southeast region is experiencing a surge in building, with the mammoth 2,854-home The Pinehills development in Plymouth being the biggest example. As the demand for new homes shows no signs of drastically slowing down anytime soon, the possibility of acquiring some of the approximately 15,000 acres of bog or 60,000 acres of surrounding upland has drawn the interest of the real estate community.

“It is the ultimate train wreck,” said Jeffrey LaFleur, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, the trade organization that represents cranberry growers in Massachusetts. “The fact that one of the fastest-growing areas in terms of development is in our region, coinciding with the time of [cranberry growers’] demise, is creating havoc with the potential loss of open space.”

The largest example of a cranberry grower turning to development is Wareham-based A.D. Makepeace Co., one of the world’s largest cranberry growers and one of the state’s largest private land holders, which is considering development of nearly 10,000 acres of land spread across Wareham, Plymouth and Carver. While that plan may grab the spotlight in terms of its size, LaFleur said smaller plans could have an equally large impact.

“The majority of cranberry farms are less than 100 acres,” he said. “If each of those farmers decides to develop even 20 of those acres, it will have an impact. You’ll have two houses over here, three more over there, and it will add up.

“Farmers are making extremely difficult decisions to sell off some of their land as house lots … The one constant resource these farmers have is the land, and they’re looking at the sale of their land as a last option.”

“I know there are a number of proposals floating around in Plymouth County by some of the larger growers,” Phillips said. “It may be that they just want to diversify their portfolios. In looking at what I’ve seen, these proposals are intelligently planned.

“It’s a signal,” Phillips continued. “We often talk about economics being outweighed by environmental contributions. This is the flip side, and now we have to look at what the impact of that is with the specter of [development] looming.”

The state can purchase agricultural preservation restrictions, or APRs, on land it fears may be developed and wants to keep agricultural in perpetuity. While preserving the land, it gives farmers needed money. However, by statute APR land must be capable of producing a variety of different products to meet the state’s agricultural needs, and the limited capabilities of sandy soil and wetlands in and around cranberry bogs means few bogs ever get an APR.

“We tend to look for high-quality soils [when purchasing APRs],” Healy said. “We tend to buy along the Housatonic and Connecticut rivers where the soil is beautiful. By statute we are required to look at that. In sandy soil, you may be able to produce some organic berries, but if the cranberry industry falls apart, can you still have an agricultural industry on that soil?”

Even without APRs as a solution to preventing widescale development of bogs and uplands, Healy and LaFleur said the state is working with local and federal organizations to help the cranberry industry through its crisis.

“We’re looking at other alternatives instead of widescale development,” Healy said, “like having a limited number of house lots sold. We’re looking at different ways to slice the pie.”

In addition to helping farmers revamp their business plans to help earn more profits and providing training programs, Healy said the state is also working to form three-way partnerships with towns and farmers themselves to fund private land trusts that could be used in place of an APR.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Every one of these farms is different,” Healy said.

LaFleur said a coalition is being formed with environmental groups to look at ways to keep the bogs viable and study the value of open space compared to land that is developed.

“Any decline in the industry could dramatically change the landscape of Southeastern Massachusetts,” LaFleur said. “We’re looking at diversification options, what else these farmers can grow. There’s a lot of effort being put forth on the state and federal side as well.”

LaFleur and Healy both said they expect cranberry prices will rebound in the coming years, though never to the high levels seen three years ago.

“It’s going to take time,” LaFleur said. “The question is, will the farms be able to survive between then and now? And once the prices go up, then it takes a while to rebuild equity in the farms. A lot of these places have really chewed into their reserves.”

“We’ll see some development, but not a wholesale burying of the industry,” Healy said. “Some will fold their tent.

“Farmers own the land, it’s their asset, and if they want to sell the land that’s their choice,” he said. “But a lot of us think farms are useful, and we’d like to keep development to a minimum.”

State’s Cranberry Growers Mull Development of Bogs

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min