After nearly 40 years of riding the Wall Street roller coaster as a stockbroker, John Sager planted his retirement roots in the shallow depths of cranberry marshes, because he always wanted to be a farmer.
"Not the get-up-at-4-a.m.-and-milk-the-cows type, but farming with some reasonable hours," said Sager, who developed 76 acres of marshes in central Wisconsin, the heart of the nation's largest and most productive cranberry region.
Sager's experience with the small red berries has been far from reasonable and has drawn painful comparisons to the volatile business he left a decade ago. Cranberries became the boom-and-bust high-tech stock of agribusiness, and as growers harvest their crop this fall, they still are struggling to pull themselves out of the muck of overproduction.
The plight of growers has been a boon to consumers, who have reaped the benefits of low prices for cranberry juice and the Thanksgiving staple of cranberry sauce.
After soaring to a peak of $80 per 100-pound barrel in 1997 and then plummeting to $11 two years later, cranberry prices have regained some of their lost ground. This year, growers are expected to receive about $19 to $23 per barrel, roughly half the price before speculation triggered Wall Street-like chaos in a business whose signature is small farms run by several generations of families.
For most, the price will not be enough to cover the cost of production, which ranges from $25 to $35 per barrel, depending on the condition of the marsh. The recovery is slow.
"A lot of them are just trying to hang on," said John Swendrowski of Northland Cranberries Inc. in Wisconsin Rapids. "At the current price, far more growers will lose money than will book a profit."
Hard knocks in agriculture are nothing new. Drought conditions this year inflicted heavy damage on major cash crops, and Congress approved emergency assistance.
But cranberries, which occupy an obscure nook in agriculture dominated by farmers in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, are off the big-farm radar screen. They are not covered by federal farm subsidies, as are such crops as corn, wheat and soybeans.
Nationwide, there are only 1,200 cranberry growers, with the overwhelming majority in Wisconsin. The average size of a cranberry farm in Massachusetts is less than 20 acres.
"They're kind of a crop apart," said Neil Harl, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. "Unless you live in those states, you don't pay that much attention to them."
The cranberry business has thrived mostly in isolation for more than a century and has, in terms of growing and harvesting, changed relatively little. At Wetherby Cranberry Co. in Warrens, the harvested berries from 32 marshes ride a conveyor belt to the top of the old wooden mill and bounce through the different layers.
The berries are inspected by hand before going into plastic bags and cardboard boxes for sale or for juicemakers such as Ocean Spray or Northland.
"We learned how to grow them too well a few years ago," said Nodji VanWychen. She and her family are independent growers in Warrens and the third generation to tend the marshes.
"We're coming back gradually, but it's awfully slow," VanWychen said.
When Harvard Medical School reported in 1994 that cranberry juice helped protect against bladder infections, consumption jumped. Companies such as Ocean Spray Cranberries encouraged more growers to enter the business.
Speculation in cranberries sent the price, usually about $35 to $40 a barrel, soaring in the mid-1990s. That encouraged an unprecedented expansion in the industry. In Wisconsin, the acreage devoted to cranberry marshes soared during the decade, from 12,000 to 18,000, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. Cranberry farms cropped up in British Columbia and Quebec, adding to the supply.
Sager watched warily as the price shot to $80 a barrel. "Everybody and their cousin got into it, and they thought they could make a phenomenal living. It was the worst thing that could happen," Sager said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered growers to restrict harvests in 2000 and 2001 to reduce the bloated inventory. That has led to a gradual price recovery. Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin growers association, said this year still will be "a tough one" despite the improved conditions, because most growers will not get the price they need to cover their costs. Some people will get out of the business this year, he said.
Despite the low prices, there is little incentive for many cranberry farmers to get out unless they face financial collapse. Marshes -- or bogs, as they are called in Massachusetts -- are not easily adaptable to other forms of growing, Harl said. The soil in central Wisconsin is sandy, and the surrounding wetlands rule out switching to other crops, he said.
Chris Phillips, a spokesman for Ocean Spray in Lakeville-Middleboro, Mass., said demand for cranberries is growing. Strong early sales of white cranberry juice underscore the importance of offering something new to the consumer, Phillips said.
The berries' price, though, will determine whether Nodji VanWychen's children remain in the business.
"We're going to have to weather the storm," she said. "But I don't know if we're ever going to see the price get back to $35."