How The Trade War Crushed A Growing Chinese Market For U.S. Cranberries

This story is Part 1 in a series on the rise and fall of U.S. cranberry sales in China.


NPR/WBUR – Cranberry producers in Massachusetts, and around the country, are slowly drowning in surplus fruit.

For years, harvests in the three major cranberry-producing countries — the United States, Canada and Chile — have swelled, while many consumers have turned away from sugary beverages like cranberry juice. As a result, the global supply of cranberries has outgrown demand, and many Bay State growers have been pushed to the brink of failure.

“We’re in what I think is a really tough spot right now,” said Dom Fernandes, a third-generation cranberry grower in Carver. His company, Fresh Meadows Farm, is struggling to break even.

Audio Segment: ow.ly/Ck3U50wbvuq

“I would’ve loved to have seen this farm stay in our family for another generation, and I’m not optimistic about that,” he said.

If things don’t turn around soon, Fernandes expects his family won’t be the only one looking to leave the industry.

“We’re seeing consolidation take place, we’re seeing small full-time growers switching to small part-time growers, and we’re also seeing growers looking to simply walk away,” he said.

In 2008, a Massachusetts grower could expect to fetch around $58.60 per barrel of fruit, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). By 2018, the price fell to $22.30 — a 62% drop.

Interactive Infogram: infogram.com/cranberry-2-1hzj4oq0gjz72pw, Courtesy/WBUR

To make matters worse, the ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing has put a tight squeeze on international cranberry sales.

As the Trump administration prepares for a new round of trade talks, Chinese tariffs on American cranberries remain in place, adding to the economic pain growers are feeling.

However, the makings of the current cranberry glut were visible as early as 2012. And it was around that time that the industry, in search of new customers, focused its marketing muscle on China. The bet was that the world’s most populous country might just be big enough to soak up that excess fruit.

But there was a little problem: Most Chinese consumers had no idea what a cranberry was.

Selling An Unknown Fruit

At the 2019 International Fruit Expo, held this summer in the sprawling southeastern city of Guangzhou, the smell of opportunity was in the air. Or maybe it was the aroma of durian, the famously pungent fruit that its haters — and even many of its lovers — say smells like gym socks.

For three days, the convention hall was transformed into a sort of indoor marketplace, with vendors from dozens of different countries beckoning passersby to their stalls with trays of chopped fruit. Among the goods: Vietnamese durian, Iranian figs, Taiwanese pineapple and Indonesian snakeskin fruit (which, if you’re wondering, looks like a pear injected with python DNA; the booth that sold it had run out before this reporter could find out how it tastes).

For any business trying to get a foothold in China’s $7 billion imported fruit market, trade shows like this one are a chance to introduce products to new taste buds and, hopefully, find an importer who can provide a gateway into the world’s second-largest economy.

“In terms of market size, definitely all the producers want to come here,” said Pablo Aguyuo, who was there to promote Mexican produce.

One purveyor of Indian royal mangoes sold 216 boxes in just three days.

“The Chinese people are buying!” exclaimed the vendor, Daddu Raman, who said he’d been collecting business cards from various importers.

There is a palpable sense that if you can sell into China, it can change your business fortunes in a big way. That’s why the U.S. cranberry industry has spent millions of dollars marketing in China over the past several years: to get people to try, and maybe even love, the little red fruit.

“At least not get [cranberries] confused with blueberries,” said Lydia Lee, president of the PR firm Weber Shandwick’s China division.

In 2013, Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray, which claims to supply 65% of the world’s cranberries, hired the agency to help raise its profile in China. When the firm conducted a survey of Chinese consumers, more than 95% said they did not know what cranberries were.

Beyond the staples of marketing, like trade shows and tasting events, Lee’s team devised strategies that would become part of the company’s China playbook: pushing the product on giant e-commerce sites like Alibaba, wining and dining editors from food and lifestyle publications, and even flying social media influencers out to a Massachusetts bog to experience the cranberry harvest in person.

“These influencers brought their own cameras and live-streamed the whole process to their followers,” Lee said. “And these followers, they were tweeting all about it because it was something very curious.”

Lee’s team also played up the cranberry’s connection to Thanksgiving. In one promotional video produced for Ocean Spray, a young Chinese woman has Thanksgiving dinner with a Massachusetts family. Spliced in with shots of people cooking and eating were, of course, lots of images of cranberries being mixed into various dishes.

“The whole atmosphere of family gathering together, you know, having a feast, watching football … kids running around, resonates very well with Chinese culture,” Lee said. “This is what we do in Chinese New Year.”

In addition to Ocean Spray, there was another group trying to promote cranberries in China: a quasi-governmental agency called the Cranberry Marketing Committee. Since 2014, the U.S. group has spent roughly $1 million every year just on marketing in China. Some of that money has gone toward paying restaurants to put cranberry-themed dishes on the menu and hiring chefs to create recipes.

All of these marketing efforts were heavily aimed at younger women from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, a demographic that, according to Lee, is not only influential, but also open to trying new things — like a tart, shriveled, little-known fruit from the other side of the planet.

So, did this multi-front marketing blitz actually work? The answer, according to U.S. export data, is a definite “yes.”

Interactive Infogram infogram.com/cranberries-1hzj4oqg0nj72pw Courtesy/WBUR

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By Adrian Ma