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Boston Globe

October 15, 2000

Cranberry Industry Chronicled on the Web

If it weren't for my Web site, I'd be an unknown.
I don't know anything about farming -
I just help out with the harvest here.

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MIDDLEBOROUGH - Hal Brown doesn't pretend to know anything about farming.

But Brown, publisher of the ''Cranberry Stressline'' Web site, and considered by many small cranberry growers to be ''the voice of the bogs,'' has become the man to go to for news, chatter, and conjecture about an industry in trouble.


''`Cranberry Stressline' is the best thing that's happened to the cranberry industry since sliced bread,'' said David McCarthy, a small independent grower in Yarmouth. ''We growers have a forum for communicating with each other.''


Brown, a therapist by occupation, has been detailing cranberry industry happenings for the last three years on his Internet site (www.geocities.com/cranberrybogs/). He was the first to report on the Internet, for instance, a congressional conference committee's Oct. 5 approval of an agricultural appropriations act that will provide $20 million in emergency aid to cranberry growers if signed.


''If it weren't for my Web site, I'd be an unknown,'' the 56-year-old Brown said recently. ''I don't know anything about farming - I just help out with the harvest here.''

As he chatted, Brown escorted a visitor along a dirt road to a small bog where his wife, Betty, 55, and two young workers - all in waders - were gathering berries.

Betty Brown, a reference librarian at Middleborough Public Library, owns with three cousins 38 acres of bogs in a secluded part of town. They're the third generation to operate them.


''After Betty and I moved here 10 years ago from Michigan, she was starting fresh as a cranberry grower. But she soon became active in growers' groups,'' Brown said, jumping on a loading platform next to the bog.


''Has he talked your head off?'' his wife joked, adding, ''If it hadn't been for the Internet, and Hal's involvement, growers wouldn't be able to get together.''

Betty and Hal met in 1967, when both were graduate students at Michigan State University. She has a doctoral degree in American literature, he a master's degree in social work.


Brown labeled his first Internet offering five years ago ''The Unlikely Farmers, the Librarian, and the Shrink.'' The ''shrink'' comes from the therapy practice he runs from home, specializing in marriage counseling and occupational stress.


That Web site attracted only 35 or so hits a month, he said, because, ''some people obviously thought it was wrong for me to admit my mistakes [as a farmer], which, after all, is what therapy is all about.''


As a local special police officer, besides being a therapist, he then launched Web pages geared to police suffering from stress. ''But after writing 40 articles on the subject, I couldn't think of anything else to write about,'' he said. ''So, I changed the Web site's name to `Cranberry Stressline.'''


That was in 1997, when the cranberry industry was robust. A year later, per-barrel prices peaked at $60. Today, they're hovering around $10 a barrel. Growers' expenses, on average, are three times as much.


Brown then latched onto a subject, serendipitously, he said, that continues to be his bread-and-butter: Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., the Lakeville-based growers' cooperative.


''Ocean Spray's annual meeting in February 1999 turned out to be a doozy. Thomas Bullock, then Ocean Spray's chief executive, announced that prices were going to be drastically under what had been forecast. People were devastated by the news.''

Since then, Brown has used grower sources to go behind the scenes at Ocean Spray and publicize issues - from senior management changes to marketing miscues - that the cooperative would rather not air.


Earlier this month, he ferreted out before it was announced the news that Barbara Thomas, a Canadian, had been appointed to Ocean Spray's board. Only one other woman, Ellen Stillman, had served as a director, he reported.


Now, Brown is promoting the notion that Ocean Spray's management is trying to get things in order so that the cooperative can be sold. Although Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola reportedly have been suitors in the past, Brown's not saying whom he's betting on to emerge as potential buyers, if his scenario is played out.


Ocean Spray's chief spokesman, Chris Phillips, said of the possible sale idea, ''That's not so. We're in a turnaround mode, and that's our focus.''


Although Brown is a well-known critic of Ocean Spray, the 5,179 barrels of cranberries produced on the Browns' property this fall will be delivered to Ocean Spray.

''It's weird, I know,'' Brown said. ''But I'm not the grower, Betty is.''

Said Betty Brown, ''The industry has needed other voices.''


Two of Hal Brown's fans are also big industry names: John Decas, principal of Decas Cranberry Products Inc. of Wareham and Carver, and John Swendrowski founder and chief executive of Northland Cranberries Inc. of Wisconsin and a former Ocean Spray grower.


''If the `Stressline' had existed five years ago, we probably wouldn't have the problems we do today because adjustments would have been made'' to keep supply in line with demand, Decas said.


Depending on the cranberry news flow, Brown said he can spend a couple of hours a day updating his Web pages. In a news- breaking week, he added, his site can get as many as 2,000 ''hits,'' half that number during a slow news week.

He may not always be right, he said, but he always has something to say about the cranberry industry.


''And I'll do that for as long as I have something to write about and don't get burned out,'' he added.


This story ran on page S11 of the Boston Globe on 10/15/2000.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.


The Business Journal of Southeastern Massachusetts

December, 2000

Hal Brown:

The Online "Voice Of The Bogs"

By Nancy Norton

MIDDLEBORO - Up until ten years ago, the only thing Hal Brown really knew about cranberries was that they tasted good.

Nowadays, though, the self-proclaimed "unlikely farmer'' has learned on the job and has earned a reputation as one of the region's most knowledgeable and informed sources in the cranberry industry.

Brown, whose wife Betty farms 38 family-owned cranberry bogs in Middleboro, has become known as "the voice of the bogs'' by the region's smaller cranberry growers.

The Michigan native is the publisher of "Cranberry Stressline,'' a novel site on the World Wide Web that has attracted the attention of cranberry growers and others involved in the cranberry farming industry across the state, the region, and even the entire country.

The site is chock-full of information, including news updates, trends and articles relating to the cranberry industry. It also offers up a chat room-styled forum for folks in the industry to compare notes and share news and information.

Though not a profit-making venture, his Internet site has made him an area celebrity and has filled a kind of fantasy for the 56 year-old Brown, a practicing marriage counselor and occupational stress therapist.

"I really don't know anything about farming. I consider myself an industry observer,'' Brown said in a recent interview.

On his Web site, Brown also refers to himself as a "babe in the bogs'' who may not know much about growing cranberries, but does "know about interpersonal dynamics, handling stress, the salutary effects of being able to take things in stride, and not taking yourself so seriously that you can't laugh at your mistakes.''

Brown's first experiences with the farming end of the cranberry industry began ten years ago, when the couple decided to move back East to continue operating bogs that have been farmed by Betty Brown's family for three generations.

Though she remembered being around the bogs during her childhood, Betty Brown, a reference librarian at the Middleboro Public Library who holds a Ph.D. in American literature, started farming from scratch, learning by doing and becoming involved with the network of growers who operate in the region.

"For the hell of it,'' Brown says, he began posting photographs and sharing information on the Internet about the couple's experiences as novice cranberry growers.

"The Unlikely Farmers: The Librarian and the Shrink,'' as Brown titled the page, was the start of what would soon become a forum for issues and news in the cranberry industry worldwide.

"At the beginning I took a lot of criticism for admitting to making mistakes,'' Brown recalled.

But rather than dissuade him, the criticism sparked yet another idea for Brown.

"Being criticized for admitting mistakes struck a nerve. After all, that's

what therapy is all about,'' he said.

Brown called up a past experience as a writer to feed the expansion of the Web site.

For years, Brown worked as a reporter, writing articles for a now defunct magazine called "Police Log'' in Michigan about overcoming the stress inherent to police work.

"When the criticism started to come, I realized that all the police stories I wrote could be easily adapted to the stress that is related to making your living in the cranberry industry,'' he said "I thought it could be helpful.''

Brown hasn't stopped since he first posted those first photos and stress-related articles on the Internet.

"Now I spend up to five hours a day updating the site,'' he said.

And though he doesn't get paid for his work, business for the Cranberry Stressline is booming.

With the cranberry industry in crisis this year, there is no lack of issues to talk about. Area growers have been faced with losses of $15 per barrel and upwards due to what Brown claims is a surplus of the zesty fruit that has driven costs down.

Brown's personal connection with Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. and its grower-owned cooperative - of which Betty Brown is a member - has provided almost endless fodder for information and draws hundreds of hits to the site daily.

Lately, Brown is spending countless hours keeping up with trends in the industry, tracking prices and reporting on legislative action to appropriate emergency funding to aid cranberry farmers.

Brown also prides himself on developing a network of professionals who clue him in to breaking news about Ocean Spray, the largest producer of canned and bottled juice in the world.

A self-admitted fan of the fictitious Lt. Colombo -- the legendary rumpled police detective of the 1980s television series of the same name that starred actor Peter Falk -- Brown says he likes to think of himself as getting to the heart of the matter much like his television hero.

"Colombo has always been my favorite television personality. And in practicing therapy one always tries to get to the meat of an issue. I think I have a knack for investigating to get to the truth of things,'' he said.

Brown's most recent quest is tracking the happenings at Ocean Spray, particularly in light of the current industry crisis and its impact to independent local growers like he and his wife.

He has been especially critical of Ocean Spray and the tact that its management has taken to disseminate information about issues ranging from management changes to rumors that the company plans to sell off the cooperative.

His pursuit to discover and publicize information on the Cranberry Stressline that the cooperative "would rather not air'' has made Brown controversial.

"I believe that Ocean Spray could have much more information out there than they do,'' said Brown.

"Lots of people are reading information on the site,'' Brown said.

"Everyone's trying to stay afloat.''

Meanwhile, Brown said he plans to continue writing as long as there are issues to be brought to the public.

Link to the Cranberry Stressline