Extension Educator, Horticulture
Few TV commercials include a glimpse of life on the farm unless you count vignettes of talking cows or moody chickens. However, cranberry commercials offer a look into life on a cranberry farm with amiable hip-booted harvesters bounded by their bounty of bog bobbing cranberries.
All that water is only part of the cranberry story whose roots are uniquely North American both in inhabitation and in production. The North American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, of Thanksgiving fame grows naturally in boggy areas of northeastern U.S. and Canada. Although probably never common here, cranberry is native to northern Illinois. Early colonists and Native Americans ate wild cranberries in a variety of recipes. The first settlers called the fruit "crane berry" in recognition of the flower's resemblance to a sandhill crane. Crane berry misplaced an "e" somewhere over the years to become "cranberry".
In 2007 according to The Cranberry Marketing Committee 87% of cranberries came from U.S. farms. Almost 57 percent of the nation's supply of cranberries are produced in Wisconsin which in 2008 is projected to produce 3.85 million barrels of fruit (100 pounds per barrel= 44,000 to 54,000 cranberries per barrel). That's a lot of berries. Massachusetts is number two in production with Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington adding to the bounty of berries.
Cranberry plants when not submerged are exquisite low-growing woody perennials with tiny evergreen leaves. Plants can reach eight inches tall but the long sprawling stolons stretch out to six feet. Cranberries bloom in late June and early July with bee-beckoning pink flowers.
Despite the often depicted floating flotilla of red berries, cranberries do not grow underwater or in standing water. They are grown in specially constructed low lying fields (referred to as bogs or marshes) of acidic peaty soils with nearby abundant supplies of water and sand. Cranberries require similar acidic conditions required by their berry brother – the blueberry.
Flooding is the management tool of choice for winter protection, spring frost protection and harvest; not a required growing condition for cranberries. In December fields are flooded. The resulting solid covering of ice protects the plants and developing flower buds against fluctuating temperatures and drying winter winds. In spring, the water is pumped out so the plants can flower and develop fruit. Once the berries become red orbs of fruity tartness, floods return to the fields.
Mid-September through mid-November is cranberry picking time. Cranberries are harvested in two ways – wet harvest or dry harvest. A small percentage of cranberries are dry harvested for fresh market fruit. Dry harvest uses mechanical pickers, resembling lawn mowers with rakes to comb the berries off the plants and onto conveyor belts.
The most common method is wet harvest, where individual fields are flooded. A giant egg beater of sorts helps to dislodge the berries from the plants. The ripe berries bob to the top of the water thanks to a handy little pocket of air in each berry. The floating berries are corralled to one side of the field by the aforementioned amiable hip-booted bog people. Berries are loaded onto a conveyor and into a truck to be processed into over 1,000 different products.
Cranberries are somewhat unique in the world of fruit since they can be refrigerated for several months without losing quality and stored frozen up to a year.
Cranberries pack a punch of health and taste into a little berry. As a low-caloric, fiber-rich fruit with antioxidants and vitamin C they deserve to be eaten in recipes beyond the sugar-laden gelatinous goo often seen on Thanksgiving tables.
Stock up now on fresh or frozen cranberries. They are only available at supermarkets from September to December.
Check out Wisconsin State Cranberries Growers Association http://www.wiscran.org and The Cranberry Marketing Committee http://www.uscranberries.com/ for recipes and details about cranberry production.