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Growing cranberries in the Comox Valley, Vancouver Island

“Another advantage of a producers’ co-op is (farm) size is not relevant.”

– GEORGE HAMILTON

COURTENAY, B. C.

Cranberries, known for their tart, sour taste, have been nothing but sweet for growers George and Geraldine Hamilton.

The Hamiltons, along with two of their three sons, Jeff and Neal, produce about two million pounds of the nutritious fruit annually from three separate farms totalling 99 acres in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island.

“We chose the industry for several reasons,” George explained recently to a group of farm writers. “One was that we had the land. Secondly we had the resources. It rains here you know,” he said tongue-in-cheek as he stood sheltered from a steady, but light rain. “We use a hell of a lot of water.”

The family had no previous experience when they started with one farm in 1981.

George was a bored civil servant and his sons had some swampland. His son with a commerce degree said the land was suited for cranberries and producing them looked profitable. He was right.

Family oriented

“Why did we stay in it? Because it is family oriented; it provides a good income level and the lifestyle is marvelous. When we put these little babies to bed about the end of October we don’t do any farming until about March. Then we spend our time down in Montevideo (Uruguay).”

One might be given to believe cranberries are the fountain of youth.

George, who is articulate and witty, looks and moves like someone much younger than 80 years of age. And Geraldine, 78, is thigh deep in water harvesting cranberries.

Cranberry production averages 1,500 pounds an acre in B. C., but the Hamiltons produce “significantly more” totalling about two million pounds. At 60 cents a pound that’s a gross return of $1.2 million or $12,000 an acre.

George credits Geraldine’s horticultural prowess.

“She is one of the top producers in North America – don’t tell her that – in both quantity and quality,” George says.

George says their lack of experience allowed them to keep an open mind and try different farming methods. Other growers, who he described as being part of a family, offered lots of assistance.

Craisons

Cranberries are evergreen dwarf shrubs, or trailing vines, that grow wild in many parts of Canada and the United States, mainly in boggy areas. Commercial production takes place in bogs (peat soils), or on sand.

Cranberries are not constantly flooded. They are however, covered with about a foot of water at harvest. The vines and berries float and a machine is used to agitate the plants to separate them. Then they are pumped through pipes to a cleaning station and dropped into large wooden boxes to be shipped to Ocean Spray’s processing plant in Aberdeen, Washington.

“All our cranberries here go to craisins… because of our colouring period, which is later than most areas because we are the most northerly people in this business and secondly because we are so clean,” says George.

George has nothing but praise for Ocean Spray, a farmer-owned co-operative, that processes and markets about two-thirds of North America’s cranberry production.

“The advantage for me is I get the same price as the guy in New Jersey or wherever,” George says. “I don’t need to compete with anybody except on a bragging basis (for top yields).

“I can just be a producer. And we’re good producers. That frees me up from all the horrendous implications in processing, value added and also the problems with marketing and marketability.

“Another advantage of a producers’ co-op is (farm) size is not relevant.”

It hasn’t been all clear sailing though. A few years ago cranberries lost market share to other fruit juices and cranberry prices plunged to 11 cents a pound from 67. That’s when Ocean Spray came up with white cranberry juice (less of a stain risk) and craisins – dried cranberries sold like raisins.

Price drop

George blames “greed, indifference and stupidity,” for the drop in demand and prices.

“We just knew that it (good prices) would never end… as we sat on our derrires… and the people in the other juices were in that tremendous transition with the health movement.”

New Ocean Spray directors were elected and changes made.

“It was a wake-up call and as a result we’re better off because of it. But it’s not something that you want to do. It’s history thank God.”

Growing cranberries is profitable, but George says startup costs are high at $15,000 to $25,000 an acre; that doesn’t include the land or equipment. There’s lots of suitable land in the Comox area, that local promoters say is “relatively inexpensive” compared to other production areas like B. C.’s Fraser Valley. But at $10,000 an acre and up, it’s pricey by western Canadian standards.

Cranberry production starts with the purchase and planting of cranberry vine cuttings, which take five years to come into full production.

Controlling grass is an ongoing battle. George had an interest in an organic cranberry farm, but gave it up because it was just too hard to control the grass without herbicides.

Island advantage

Being on an island helps keep cranberries disease free, but the Hamiltons have had problems with nematodes, which took out 20 per cent of their fields on one of their farms.

“Emotionally I can’t take another one of those,” George says.

Although the Hamiltons’ production is not organic, George still considers himself an environmentalist – a posture he embraced for several reasons. One was economic. He had a cranberry farm in Oregon where he spent $2,500 an acre on chemicals a year and produced 12,500 pounds of cranberries. His wife was spending $500 an acre on chemicals and harvesting nearly twice as much.

“I became an instant environmentalist because it was financially to my advantage, as well as meeting my philosophical outlook,” he says. “So it was not a transition that was difficult for me.” [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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