Please Pass the Cranberries!

By Kim Buddington

Let’s play a little game!

What side do you fall on? As you’re seated at the Thanksgiving table, Do you say, “Yes, please!” to the cranberry sauce as it comes around? Or are you a member of team, “Uh, thanks… but no thanks!” as you happily pass the jiggly red stuff along to your cousin?

Of course, there isn’t just one kind of cranberry sauce. You’ve got the stuff in the can, and then you have unique family recipe cranberry sauces that are passed down through the generations. Either way, it seems to be one of those things- you either like it, or you don’t. At the very least, it’s an acquired taste. I didn’t care for anything made with the fruit as a child, but I’m happy to say my taste has evolved since then.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, one of the top cranberry producing states in the US, I’m a bit ashamed to say that I knew next to nothing about how cranberries are produced. So, in honor of one of the most iconic staples of the Thanksgiving feast, I decided to do a little research on cranberry production. Curious? Okay, read on!

The cranberry, or Vaccinium macrocarpon, has a long history of use in North America. (7) Native Americans living in regions where the berries grew in the wild, used them for medicinal and culinary applications long before the arrival of European settlers. Captain Henry Hall is credited with being the first to have success with the farming of cranberries in the year of 1816 in Massachusetts. (2)

He discovered that if the wind blew sand into the bogs where the cranberries were, their growth was enhanced. Thanks to him experimenting with moving vines around and intentionally adding sand to the growing area, the culture of cranberries as a commercial crop eventually began to interest people. At the beginning of the 20th century, commercial cranberry acreage in Barnstable and Plymouth Counties (MA) had increased three-fold from what it was just about 15 years earlier. (2)  

Here now in modern times, Wisconsin is the number one cranberry producer in the United States and worldwide! Massachusetts is the next largest cranberry growing state. Other states that also produce a notable amount of these berries are Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. (7)

So how do cranberries grow? Cranberry plants are somewhat like strawberry plants, in the sense that they grow on similar type vines that spread out along the ground. They are a perennial wetland plant and require particular growing conditions. (1)

Naturally occurring cranberry bogs are the result of deposits left by glaciers, which feature elements of clay, peat, gravel, and sand. The bogs used in commercial cranberry farming utilize things to mimic the natural growing environment, such as wetlands, human-made water channels, and ponds. (1) 

While it may seem like it from most of the pictures of cranberry bogs you’re likely familiar with, cranberry plants are not underwater all year long! Growers flood their bogs at certain times of the year for specific purposes. One of the times flooding is done is during the winter months. This practice helps to guard the plant and vulnerable buds from damage that could result from harsh winter conditions. (3)

As the warmth of spring is welcomed back into the region, the flood water is drained. This action prompts the plants to wake up and begin growing again. If temperatures happen to dip back down into the danger zone where new buds can be harmed, sprinklers can be used to wet and protect the plants. (4)

Another management task that keep farmers busy in the spring is weed control in the bog. Depending on the operation, this can include herbicide application, mechanical pulling of weeds, or even re-flooding the whole bog. Ditches also need to be maintained and kept free of debris for drainage purposes. Although cranberries typically don’t need extensive fertilization, any prescribed nutrients are usually spread during the late spring and summer. (4)

Cranberries are a perennial plant and can grow for decades, but sometimes growers will need to plant new vines to replace old ones.  Extensive repairs and upgrades on bogs and production equipment may also need to be made, to keep the operation in tip-top shape and growing the best berries. (4) 

While cranberries may not grow underwater, they do require quite a bit of water during the summer. About 1 inch of water each week is considered adequate. So like most other crops when natural rainfall is not enough, irrigation is necessary. Another vital aspect of cranberry culture during June and July is making sure pollination happens. Beehives are used to accomplish this. (5)

Cranberries have pests like anything else, so control is crucial for plant health and crop quality.  Intergraded Pest Management (IPM) practices are implemented in bogs, with a focus on reducing the amount of chemical pest control applications used. You will often see crop scouts out checking to see what bugs are causing problems and if control measures are working. (5)  

Autumn is cranberry harvest time! Growers are hard at work bringing in the fruits of their labor during September, October, and part of November. Cranberries are harvested using two possible methods. They are either wet harvested or dry harvested. (6)(8)

The vast majority of cranberries are wet harvested. The bog is flooded, and the water is stirred up by a machine. The ripe berries will become detached from the vine and float on top of the water. They can then be collected and removed from the water with special equipment. Then processing can begin. Any processed cranberry product you may have had- such as sauces, juice, or as part of another food- was harvested using this method. (6)(8)

If you bought fresh cranberries this year, you’ve most likely bought cranberries that were dry harvested. Operators use a particular machine that will gently comb the fruit into a bag. The bagged berries are then taken to be graded for sale. One of the ways by which fresh berries are sorted is based on whether or not the fruit will bounce. (6)

I certainly think Cranberries are an interesting crop to learn about. To our cranberry farmers, I will definitely take a serving of cranberry sauce this year with extra appreciation to you and your hard work. To everyone else, I hope you will too…or at least give it a try!

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!



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