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Cranberries are headed north

Farmers see signs that the climate-sensitive cold-loving berries are shifting their range into Canada. Blueberries, too. What's to be done?

By Tony AziosCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2007

Scarlet harvest: Workers corral the buoyant berries at Peter Beaton's cranberry bog in Wareham, Mass., near Cape Cod.

Tony Azios


Wareham, Mass.

When Rod Serres thinks about cranberries, he doesn't see them beside a Thanksgiving turkey. Another bird comes to mind: a canary in a coal mine. That's because, like all berries, cranberries are very sensitive to climate, making them the agricultural harbinger of global warming in America's Northeast.

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"The cranberry is pretty highly adapted to its specific environment, its niche in life," says Mr. Serres, principal scientist for Ocean Spray, an agricultural cooperative and juice company headquartered in Lakeville-Middleboro, Mass. "And if you change its environment, it's probably going to be affected more than most species"

Cranberries were a late-season staple for native Americans in New England for thousands of years and have played key roles in American history, historians say. Early European settlers in Plymouth survived cold winters with help from cranberries, which native tribes taught them to harvest from the region's bogs.

Now the red berry, ubiquitous during the holiday season, is expected to retreat north later this century, deserting some key growing regions.

A recent report by the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment (NECIA), which looked at the impact of global warming on the Northeast's character and economy, says the region's food commodities are likely to be hit hard, with berries perhaps feeling it most of all. The report, a two-year collaboration between the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and a team of more than 50 independent scientists and economists, points to two greenhouse-gas-emission scenarios (one high, one low) mapped out by the Inter­governmental Panel on Climate Change. The NECIA used the data to forecast a range of climate effects in nine states, from New Jersey to Maine.

A host of environmental pressures are exacerbated by global warming, scientists say, ranging from more weeds and pests to reduced winter chill periods. That could threaten the viability of berry production generally, while all but wiping out cranberry and Concord grape production in the region's southernmost states. The report warns that as temperatures rise and growing seasons lengthen, the minimum chilling requirement need­­ed for fruiting buds to mature may not be met, causing a precipitous drop in fruit yield as far north as Massachusetts.

Peter Beaton, a third-generation cranberry grow­­er here in Wareham, Mass., near the Cape Cod Canal, has seen growing effects from what he concludes is a warming climate since the 1970s.