“A sea serpent without affidavit, is like roast turkey without cranberry sauce;” Or, how the Larocque family created the first cranberry bog in Québec, part 3
Ahh, it is you, my reading friend. As thrilled as yours truly is at seeing you so that we can conclude our brief look at the history of the first cranberry bog in Québec, I must admit that you caught me in the middle of something. May I put you on hold for a minute or two? Many thanks.
[Music of the American television game show Jeopardy playing in the background.]
Now, where were we? Ah yes, the late 1950s, and…
Yours truly would recognise that look anywhere, my reading friend. You are puzzled, are you not? You wish to confirm that your reading of the legend of the map you saw a few seconds ago is correct? Good for you. Here it is…
Parcelle en culture = Cultivated parcel
Fossé principal = Main ditch
Fossé secondaire = Secondary ditch
Digue de retenue = Retention dike
Bâtiments = Buildings
Niveau de l’ancien lac = Level of the ancient lake
Surface inondée depuis la construction de la digue = Area flooded since the construction of the dike
6 out of 7? Very good, my scholarly reading friend, but back to our story.
Please note that what follows might be slightly disturbing.
In November 1959, the management of Les Producteurs de Québec Limitée of Lemieux, Québec, as the cranberry bog created by Jean Baptiste Edgar Larocque was known at the time, had quite a scare.
You see, early in the month, 3 weeks or so before Thanksgiving, on a day cranberry growers would ruefully call Black Monday, the United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare announced that the 1958 and 1959 crops of cranberries harvested in Oregon and Washington had been contaminated with traces of aminotriazole / amitrole / amitrol, a herbicide which had produced cancer in laboratory rats. Arthur Sherwood Flemming added that cranberries harvested in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Massachusetts were being checked. Consumers, stated that gentleman, had to use their own discretion about buying cranberries whose origin could not be confirmed.
Both fresh and canned cranberries might have been contaminated.
Flemming added that no less than 1 350 or so metric tonnes (1 350 or so Imperial tons / 1 500 or so American tons) of cranberries harvested in 1957 and impounded soon after as a result of a possible contamination would be destroyed.
Within hours of the announcement, countless American (and Canadian?) grocery store owners began to yank cranberry products off their shelves. Before long, countless American (and Canadian?) restaurant owners began to yank them off their menus.
As you may well imagine, cranberry sales went down the proverbial toilet and American growers eventually lost tens of millions of dollars, which corresponds to hundreds of millions of 2023 Canadian dollars. As luck would have it, the 1959 crop was the largest so far in history.
Soon after the announcement, the president of the National Cranberry Institute, Orrin G. Colley, stated that Flemming had all but crucified the cranberry at the height of its marketing season, and this without giving growers a chance to defend themselves.
The secretary’s statement, according to industry insiders, including George C.P. Olsson, president of Ocean Spray Cranberries Incorporated, a cooperative which represented 75% or so of the American cranberry industry, was ill advised, ill informed, imprudent, irresponsible and untimely. There were some / many who demanded that Flemming resign.
This being said (typed?), several / many cranberry growers should probably have used aminotriazole on their fields after the fruits were picked, as the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had instructed them to do, rather than before. Mind you, several / many producers should probably not have used that herbicide before said FDA gave them the green light to do so.
Before I forget, the FDA was / is a broad mandate administration of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
In any event, in a November 1959 article entitled “Sauce, not the turkey, gets the axe – Mercy, Ma! No cranberries!”, the very well known and popular American weekly magazine Life stated, more or less seriously, that what Flemming had done was, and I quote, “a deed as awful as denouncing motherhood on the eve of Mother’s Day.” Industry insiders might have acquiesced.
They might not, however, have approved of the full page photograph in that same issue which showed “27 ways to embellish a turkey without resort to cranberries,” from applesauce to spiced crab apples, as well as sautéed apple rings and pickled watermelon rinds.
Colley and the industry might have been buoyed a tad by a text by none less than the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, renowned physiologist John Harold Talbott, a text published in the January 1960 issue of that illustrious publication, a text which stated that the aforementioned laboratory rats had been fed “relatively huge quantities” of aminotriazole over “relatively long periods of time.” Oh, and aminotriazole occurred naturally in vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and turnips, as well as in mustard.
Interestingly, that latter statement soon proved to be inaccurate.
As well, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner, John L. Harvey, took exception to the “relatively huge quantities” and “relatively long periods of time” mentioned in Talbott’s text. Harvey did not, however, challenge Talbott’s reference to a text in a world famous daily, The New York Times of… New York City, New York, according to which a grand total of 3 of the 200 or so batches of cranberries initially examined seemed suspicious.
Mind you, Harvey was apparently not amused by the final paragraph of Talbott’s text:
When next fall rolls around, we hope that cranberries will be permitted for the festive dinners, that licorice and jellybeans will be for sale at the candy counter, and that southern fried chicken will a permissible menu item.
Colley and the industry might also have been buoyed a tad by the fact that the top runners for the nomination of their respective political parties for the November 1960 presidential election, John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy and Richard Milhous “Tricky Dick” Nixon, a gentleman and a, err, something mentioned several / many times since September and May 2019 in our fantabulous blog / bulletin / thingee, drank cranberry juice (JFK) and ate cranberries (RMN) in the middle of what had become the cranberry scare of 1959 – and were pictured doing it. After that, both men returned to the more common candidatorial practises of shaking hands and kissing babies.
Hoping perhaps to contain the fury of the cranberry growers, Flemming himself ingested cranberries with his family on Thanksgiving. In the Executive Residence of the White House complex, however, President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, a gentleman mentioned many times in our you know what since March 2018, ingested applesauce.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled along in the United States, in late November, no less than 7 500 or so metric tonnes (7 400 or so Imperial tons / 8 300 or so American tons) of cranberries had been granted a clean bill of health by FDA inspectors. All in all, almost 99% of the cranberries inspected proved to be aminotriazole free. By the time Christmas rolled along, virtually all the herbicide free cranberries which had been impounded had been released by the FDA.
Did Flemming cause an unnecessary panic? A good question. He felt he had no choice. Cranberry producers strongly disagreed with that assessment.
Incidentally, one of the individuals present during discussions held in November 1959 to mend the abysmal relationship between Flemming and the cranberry growers was a well known American author / marine biologist / conservationist.
In September 1962, that individual published a book, her 4th, in which she examined the environmental harm caused by the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, especially dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Silent Spring was / is one of the greatest science books of all time. Its author, Rachel Louise Carson, played a crucial role in the evolution of the environmental movement on planet Earth, but back to our story.
One of the items on the agenda of the aforementioned discussions was in all likelihood the compensatory sum of money the cranberry growers were very much intent on extracting from the American government. As you may well imagine, nothing was decided at that time. A decision came relatively quickly, however. A government spokesperson indicated in late March 1960 that cranberry growers would receive something like US $ 10 000 000 in partial compensation for their losses, a sum which corresponds to somewhat less than $ 140 000 000 in 2023 Canadian currency.
The distribution of much of that dough was unfortunately delayed by the procrastination of certain members of the United States Congress. As a result, that money came too late to save many producers. The icing on the proverbial cake was that cranberry harvests after 1959 were significant. As a result, again, surpluses accumulated, driving prices down.
Would you believe that the lead singer of an utterly forgotten band from Virginia, Robert Williams & The Groovers, wrote a song about the cranberry crisis of 1959? I kid you not.
As bad as the situation got, Ocean Spray Cranberries was able to survive and, dare one state, thrive by slowly regaining consumer confidence and, to some extent, expanding the market for cranberry juice. You see, up to late 1959, that beverage had not proven all that popular, regardless of how available it was. That market expansion proved to be most welcome. Mind you, the cranberry juice marketed during the years which followed the 1959 crisis was not the one sold before it. Nay. It contained both more water and more sugar.
In the end, the 1959 crisis proved to be a wake up call for the cranberry growing firms which belonged to Ocean Spray Cranberries. From that point on, they would no longer allow themselves to be dependent upon the sale of cranberry sauce, a product primarily used at Thanksgiving and Christmas in North America.
The efforts of the industry to regain the confidence of the North American consumer seemingly paid off. In 1963, North American producers harvested 55 300 or so metric tonnes (54 450 or so Imperial tons / 61 000 or so American tons) of cranberries. Canada’s share of that mountain chain of cranberries was a ginormous 1.1%. Canada actually imported 4 times as much cranberries as it produced.
For your information, Les Producteurs de Québec produced approximately 18% of the cranberries harvested in Canada in 1963. British Columbian producers were kings of the hill, top of the heap, if yours truly may paraphrase a few words from the theme song of the somewhat disappointing 1977 motion picture New York, New York. They harvested approximately 59% of all Canadian cranberries in 1963.
The cranberry crisis of 1959 was one of the first, if not the first of the seemingly never ending slew of potential environmental health related disasters which have peopled newspapers, news broadcasts on television and teeny, tiny screens of smart phones, but back to Les Producteurs de Québec.
As soon as it learned about Flemming’s bombshell, the management of that firm contacted the federal Department of National Health and Welfare. At least one inspector went to Lemieux. Soon after, the regional director of the Food and Drug Directorate of the department, Paul E. Jean, reported that the cranberries produced by Les Producteurs de Québec were free of aminotriazole. Adélard Groulx, head of the Service de Santé de la Ville de Montréal, in… Montréal, Québec, duly informed the public after a chat with Jean.
Sadly enough, relatively few Québec newspapers seemed to have published the various reassurances to that effect, namely a quartet of dailies from Montréal, The Gazette, Montréal-Matin, The Montreal Star and La Presse, as well as a pair of dailies from Sherbrooke, Québec, my homecity, Sherbrooke Daily Record and La Tribune.
One can imagine that the cranberry sales of Les Producteurs de Québec gradually picked up. As a matter of fact, in 1965, the firm began to develop another tract of land, very well adapted to the cultivation of cranberries, near Lake Rose, close to Sainte-Marie-de-Blandford, Québec, a small municipality located near Lemieux. The first cranberries seedlings were planted in 1966.
It is worth noting that Larocque, his sons and two cousins from the United States, in other words the quintet which controlled the firm at the time, had seemingly acquired the tract of land near Lac Rose in 1953.
Yours truly also has the sad duty to inform you that Jean Baptiste Edgar Larocque died in August 1966, at the age of 79.
One of his sons, Charles Larocque, became president of Les Producteurs de Québec at that time. It should be noted that, even though the firm made money, it might not have done a roaring trade. Indeed, it has been suggested that the sale of cranberry products, especially cranberry juice really, really took off only during the second half of the 1970s.
Charles Larocque, president of Les Producteurs de Québec Limitée of Lemieux, Québec. Jeanne Desrochers, « Consommation – L’étrange culture de l’atocas – Une rizière rouge en plein cœur du Québec. » La Presse, 16 October 1980, C 1.
Les Producteurs de Québec became Les Atocas du Québec Limitée of Lemieux in July 1982. That firm had grown considerably over the preceding years. In 1988, for example, it expected to harvest 900 or so metric tonnes (890 or so Imperial tons / 1 000 or so American tons) of cranberries on the 47 or so hectares (115 or so acres) under cultivation, a 35% increase over the 34 or so hectares (85 or so acres) under cultivation in 1976.
And yes, there had been a somewhat comparable increase in production. If you must know, Les Atocas du Québec had produced 680 or so metric tonnes (670 or so Imperial tons / 750 or so American tons) of cranberries in 1980.
By 1997, Les Atocas du Québec had 71 or so hectares (175 or so acres) under cultivation and its production hovered around 1 590 or so metric tonnes (1 560 or so Imperial tons / 1 750 or so American tons) of cranberries.
And yes, those latter numbers showed that each hectare of land produced 22.4 metric tonnes of cranberries. In imperial measurements, the figures were 20 000 or so pounds per acre. Over a period of 45 or so years, in other words since 1953 or so, the amounts of cranberries produced per hectare (acre) had been multiplied by 4.45. Wah…
Les Atocas du Québec apparently shipped each and every berry to the facility operated in St. Catherines, Ontario, by Cadbury Schweppes Powell Incorporated, a subsidiary of the British multinational confectionery giant Cadbury Schweppes Public Limited Company. The containers of sauce, juice and jam which left that facility all bore the name Ocean Spray. Sadly, that facility seemingly closed its doors in July 2007, which meant that Les Atocas du Québec had to find another processing firm, a firm yours truly has yet to identify with certainty.
This being said (typed?), I have a feeling that the firm in question might, I repeat might, have been Atoka Cranberries Incorporated of Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Québec, a cranberry producer which owned a transformation facility in the nearby municipality of Manseau, Québec.
And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend, it was a fair bet that the fresh cranberries consumed in Québec at the time had been harvested in the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts, or in Wisconsin.
Louis-Michel Larocque, on the left, and Charles Larocque. Marcel Aubry, « Trois générations de producteurs de canneberges chez les Larocque. » Le Nouvelliste, 14 October 1997, 12.
By the way, in April 1994, 9 cranberry producing firms of Québec met in Plessisville, Québec, to form the Association des producteurs de canneberges du Québec (APCQ). Louis-Michel Larocque, son of Charles and grand son of Edgar, was the first secretary and treasurer of that organisation, which still existed as of 2023.
The APCQ is presently based in Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Québec.
Incidentally, the number of Québec based producers of cranberries kept growing after 1994. There were 22 in 1997. As of 2000, there were no less than 40 of them.
As you may well imagine, the amounts of cranberry harvested increased as well. Indeed, said amounts allegedly tripled between 1997 and 2000.
As a result of what could be described as an over supply of cranberries, prices began to fall. Precipitously. The sum of money which could buy you a kilogramme (pound) of cranberries in 1997-98 could buy 4 to 5 kilogrammes (pounds) of fruits in 2000, and more than 6.5 kilogrammes (pounds) in 2001. A reduction in price of 85% in 4 years! Producing a kilogramme (pound) of cranberries in 2001 cost twice as much, if not more, than the sum of money one would get by selling it.
The fact that Québec’s cranberry bogs allegedly produced 15 to 20% more fruits per hectare (acre) than their Wisconsin counterparts, and 35 to 40% more fruits per hectare (acre) than their Massachusetts counterparts, only made things worse.
Several / many Québec cranberry producers did not survive that crisis. Smaller and / or younger firms proved especially vulnerable. Les Atocas du Québec did manage to survive, however. The fact that the firm had a sideline forestry business in lumber pulp might have contributed to its survival.
As time went by, prices returned to a more acceptable / tolerable level. New processing methods, from drying to freezing, allowed new markets to bloom. Dried cranberries proved especially popular, for example. Mind you, the production of organic cranberries also took off, as did that of white cranberry juice.
White cranberry juice, you ask, my startled reading friend? Yes, white cranberry juice. Err, if truth be told, that beverage was / is actually more colourless than white. In any event, it was / is obtained by harvesting mature cranberries before they had fully ripened.
Incidentally, Québec’s cranberry producers harvested about 64 % of all cranberries harvested in Canada in 2021. Producers in British Columbia accounted for another 30% of the country’s production. And yes, the largest producer of organic cranberries on planet Earth in 2021 was Québec. Indeed, that province was seemingly the second largest producer of cranberries in the world, the state of Wisconsin being number 1 (Hello, EG!) and the state of Massachusetts, number 3.
Would you believe that, as of 2023, Les Atocas du Québec was / is located on Route des Atocas, in other words cranberry road? Or that it was still headed by Louis-Michel Larocque, a member of the board of directors of Ocean Spray? Why, you should.
The latter had seemingly run the business in cooperation with his father until 1985. Although retired since then, Charles Larocque was still with us as of 2023.
If yours truly may be so bold, you may wish to consider paying a visit to the Centre d’interprétation de la canneberges, in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, a most interesting interpretation centre active since September 1996. You may wish to check before making the trip, however. Yours truly has a feeling the centre might, I repeat might, be open only for a month or so, around September and / or October, in other words at harvest time.
This writer wishes to thank the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.