- High Bush Cranberry
- Do You Know Where Cranberries Come From and How They Are Harvested?
- The Cranberry
- How Cranberries Grow
- Want To Wade Into A Cranberry Bog? Here Are 5 Places To Visit
- What Is A Cranberry Bog – Do Cranberries Grow Underwater
- What is a Cranberry Bog?
- Where Do Cranberries Grow?
- How Do Cranberries Grow?
- History of Cranberry Bogs
- Killingworth Cranberries
- Sugar Hill Cranberry Co.
- Flax Pond Farms
- Cranberry Meadow Pond
- The Greene Company
- Vermont Cranberry Company
High Bush Cranberry
High Bush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum)
This is one of our more confusing native shrubs, since it is not a true cranberry and has a European cousin (Viburnum opulus) that is quite common locally. It grows up to 15 feet (4.6 m) high, with clusters of white flowers in late June. Fruits are cranberry-size and bright red, often hanging on throughout the winter. Leaves are three-lobed and maple-like, but vary considerably even on the same shrub. Buds are opposite and the tips of twigs die back during the winter. Bark is smooth and gray to light brown. The European variety is generally found around homesteads and parks and produces bitter fruit often totally ignored by wildlife. The native variety is more at home along streams, swamps and low, open woods. Its berries are tastier and seldom last through winter.
Can be found in damp thickets and moist woods, but will grow on drier sites. It does best on rich soils and full sunlight although it is quite tolerant of a variety of conditions.
If you can find sources of native high bush cranberry, cuttings are the easiest method of propagation. Summer cuttings work especially well, with success rates usually over 90 per cent. Seed takes two years to germinate but should give satisfactory results. Make sure to either clean the fruit or crush the berries between your fingers to break the skin before planting. Each fruit contains one flat seed.
Native high bush cranberry fruits are much more desirable for wildlife than those of the showier European variety. It is a preferred food only of ruffed grouse and cedar waxwing, but fruit is also eaten by over 20 other species. More importantly, fruits hang on throughout the winter and serve as critical emergency food when other sources are not available. Because the tips die over the winter, plants become very bushy as they get older. They provide valuable cover and are used as nesting sites by several species of birds.
Areas of Usage:
For landscape planting, it is hard to beat high bush cranberry. While not the best of our shrubs for wildlife, it is a very attractive plant and the persistent ruby-red berries are a pleasing sight throughout the winter. Berries are edible and were once commonly used with other fruits in pies and jams. Around the home, plant high bush cranberry singly, in clumps or as a hedge. These plants can also be used as part of a windbreak, along streams or when planting the edges of ponds. Since they can grow in sun or shade and in moist or dry conditions, you have flexibility in planning where to use them. Unfortunately, they are sensitive to salt spray and should not be used along roadsides and shorelines.
Do You Know Where Cranberries Come From and How They Are Harvested?
Laura deep in cranberries and water with NJ cranberry grower Steve Lee IV.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving cranberry growers are hard at work on the annual harvest to ensure your feast is complete — it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce. Cranberries are picked from mid-September to November, so I jumped on the opportunity to visit Steve Lee IV’s 1,800 acre farm in New Jersey and see the unique beauty of the harvest.
Most people, including me until I visited the farm, think cranberries grow in water. Steve explained the berries actually grow on long running vines in sandy marshes or bogs and are flooded as part of the harvesting process. And though the harvest is short and we all tend to only think of cranberries around Thanksgiving, cranberry farmers are tending their vines year round.
Cranberries are one of three fruits, along with blueberries and concord grapes, that are native to North America. And yes despite their tart flavor, they really are berries. Most cranberries grown in the U.S. come from Wisconsin, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Washington. Steve’s farm is located in Southern New Jersey, which has the best soil conditions in the state for harvesting. Lee Brothers Cranberry Farm has a long history with cranberries. Steve explains, “Our family has been working this land for seven generations. It is pretty special, it comes from the heart.”
Like most growers, Lee Brothers Farm, uses the wet method of harvesting; flooding the bogs a day or two before harvesting and picking the fruit off the top of the water. We drove a picking machine through the water, gently knocking the berries off the vine. Each farm develops their own proprietary machine that works best for their terrain, so there are no two alike. Once released, cranberries float because they contain four air chambers.
Image zoom Red and white cranberries grow in the same bog.
Another thing I assumed is that cranberries are always red, not thinking about where the white cranberry juice I’d seen in grocery stores might come from. The lesser-known white cranberries grow towards the bottom of older vines, receiving less sun exposure. They are used for that white cranberry juice. The red cranberries grown on Steve’s farm are usually used for Craisins.
Get our Cranberry Recipes Image zoom
Once the fruit is picked and floating, we put on the waders and got into the bog. We corralled berries with wooden booms and then used rakes to push them into a pump that lifts them onto a conveyer where they are cleaned and transferred to a truck for delivery to Ocean Spray. Steve like many other cranberry farmers in the U.S. and Chile, is a member of the Ocean Spray growers’ cooperative.
See Laura’s Thanksgiving Menu
Many people think of Massachusetts when they think of cranberries. Cranberry farming started on Cape Cod in the mid-1800’s and Massachusetts continues to grow an excellent crop of native berries. Massachusetts ranks second in the nation in cranberry production with more than 14,000 acres in production. Importantly, the cranberry industry helps to conserve open space since growers own more than 60,000 acres of uplands that are associated with their farms. There are many ways to experience the health of cranberry as well as the natural beauty of the cranberry harvest.
How Cranberries Grow
Natural History of the American Cranberry
Vaccinium macrocarpon Ait
The cranberry is a native American fruit. Its native range extends in temperate climate zones from the East Coast to the Central U. S. and Canada and from Southern Canada in the north to the Appalachians in the south.
The plant is a low-growing, trailing, woody vine with a perennial habit. Cranberries produce stems or runners from one to six feet long. During the growing season, the leaves are dark green and glossy, turning reddish-brown during the dormant season. The vines form a thick mat over the surface of a cultivated bed.
Short vertical upright branches, known as uprights, form from the buds along the runners. The uprights have a vertical (non-trailing) growth habit and form the terminal buds that contain the flower buds. Most of the fruit is formed from the flowers on the uprights, with some berries arising from flowers on the runner ends.
The plants thrive on the special combination of soils and hydrology found in wetlands. Natural Massachusetts bogs evolved from glacial deposits that left kettle holes lined with impermeable materials. These kettles became filled with water and decaying matter, creating the ideal environment for cranberries. Growing cranberries commercially also requires a surrounding network of support acres — the fields, forests, streams, and ponds that make up the cranberry wetlands system. Many Massachusetts cranberry bogs, particularly those in Plymouth County, are built on bogs that had been mined for iron ore, while most of those on Cape Cod were developed in natural peat bogs.
Cranberry bog soil is unique in that it consists of alternating layers of sand and organic matter. Dead leaves accumulate over the course of time and sand is added to the bed surface every 2-5 years to encourage upright production and maintain productivity. In contrast to normal agricultural soils, cranberry soil requires no tilling, remains undisturbed over time, and little mixing of sand and organic matter occurs.
Soil core showing the ‘alternating layers’ of sand and organic matter typical of cranberry soils. Native distribution of cranberry in North America. As a wetland-adapted plant, cranberries are tolerant of flooded soils. However, during the active growing season (generally from March through October), good drainage in the soil is essential to proper root growth and function. During that part of the season, commercial cranberry bogs are managed with drained soil and are not flooded for extended periods as a rule. Flooding is mainly confined to winter protection, harvest, and several specialized pest-control floods.
In addition to Massachusetts, cranberries are grown commercially in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, and Maine, with some acres in Michigan, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York. Cranberries are also grown in several Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Quebec, and the Maritimes) and Chile.
The figure to the right shows the 16-month production cycle of cranberry from the initiation of the flower bud (bud set) to the harvest of the fruit (mature fruit).
Cranberry terminal buds are initiated in the year before the crop, beginning in July. The trigger for this process is changing daylength. The buds continue to develop throughout the rest of the summer and fall, with floral buds being formed within the terminal bud. By August, the initial stages of the flower bud can be found and visible changes in the buds continue until at least some time in October. Bud development almost certainly continues later into the year in milder growing areas. Eventually the flower buds become dormant until the following spring. The signal to enter dormancy is most likely a combination of low temperatures and short days.
The dormant state lasts until the plant has been exposed to sufficient ‘chilling hours’ — hours of temperatures between 32ºF and 45ºF to complete the dormant cycle. In common with other perennial fruit crops, the cranberry plants must accumulate a critical number of chilling units in order to break dormancy in the spring and initiate flowering for the new season.
During the dormant season, growers protect the cranberry bogs with a winter flood, which often freezes. If ice conditions permit, growers may apply sand to the ice. This sand filters into the vines after the thaw and acts to encourage new growth, and may also provide some degree of pest control.
At the end of the period during which chilling units accumulate, events leading to bud break and flowering may begin. Once dormancy has broken in response to increased temperature and daylength, completion of the developmental cycle (vegetative growth, flowering, and fruiting) occurs. In Massachusetts, the terminal bud begins to lose dormant color and swell during April. By late in May, buds have begun to grow and new leaves and flower buds are visible, growing from the terminal end of the uprights. Once the terminal bud begins to grow, it must be protected from sub-freezing temperatures. This is accomplished by running the sprinkler irrigation system to provide protection on cold nights.
During June, the uprights continue to increase in length (new leaves formed) and the first flowers open. By late June, most flowers are open and the cranberry bogs resemble a pink carpet. From late June to early July, bees pollinate the cranberry flowers and tiny fruit form (fruit set). From this point until harvest, the growth cycle overlaps the beginning of a new cycle for the following year.
During the first three weeks following fruit set, the fruit acquire most of their mineral components. From that point through harvest, fruit grow by the accumulation of carbohydrates (sugars and starch produced through photosynthesis) and water. Irrigation is often necessary during this period. By September, the fruit begin to develop their characteristic red color through the production of anthocyanin pigments. Full fruit maturity occurs approximately 80 days after full bloom.
The Oregon cranberry is prized for its deep red color, which growers say puts the red in the juice. Historically, native cranberries grew in the northwestern region of the state, harvested by indigenous people who shared the fruit with explorers. White settlers later harvested wild cranberries because they were a good source of vitamin C, which prevents scurvy, and the berry’s naturally waxy coating allowed for long keeping. Nearly 3,000 acres of cranberries are cultivated in Oregon, with production centered in the south coast towns of Bandon, Langlois, Sixes and Port Orford. Oregon growers produce approximately 40 million pounds of berries each year.
Today, Oregon’s commercially cultivated cranberries account for approximately 7 percent of U.S. production, and the cranberry ranks twenty-third among Oregon’s top fifty agricultural commodities. From 2006 to 2008, Oregon growers harvested between forty and forty-nine million pounds of berries per year. Cranberry cultivation in Oregon uses approximately 27,000 acres along the southern coast, in southern Coos and northern Curry counties.
Commercial cranberry farming was started in Oregon by Charles McFarlin, one of the many prospectors who came west looking for gold. In 1885, McFarlin gave up panning, migrated to Coos County, and planted the cranberry cuttings he brought from Massachusetts. Until the mid-twentieth century, harvesting was done by hand, with native people providing much of the labor. Workers carried scoops—baskets with combs on one side of the opening. They swept the comb through the vines to release the berries, which were collected in the basket.
The temperate climate along the southern Oregon coast affords a long growing season, giving the berries a darker pigmentation than berries grown in other states. West Coast growers have developed cranberry varieties that thrive in the sandy marine soil in Coos and Curry counties. Farmers keep bees or contract with regional beekeepers for pollination.
Cranberry beds are often called bogs because early eastern farmers cultivated berries in boggy wetlands. Oregon farmers use upland sloping terrain and a series of tiered fields. A manmade pond or reservoir at the base of the slope collects rainwater for use throughout the growing season. Elevated sides surrounding each field allow farmers to flood the beds at harvest time. The ripe berries float so that harvesters—machines resembling elevated tractors with a beater bar on the front—roll through the fields, beating the vines and knocking the berries loose.
Once they are loosened from the vine, the floating berries are pushed or pumped into trucks for transport. Berries are cleaned at the farm or after delivery at one of the dozen coastal receiving stations. Little of the harvest is sold as fresh fruit. In the early days of the industry, most berries were canned for sauce. At present, most berries are either juiced for concentrate or sweetened and dried.
Growers pursue natural pest control, flooding or sanding beds to repel harmful insects. They also preserve undeveloped land around cranberry beds and maintain habitat for wildlife, especially birds and bats, which eat insects and help farmers minimize the need for artificial pesticides. For many farmers, however, the windy conditions along the coast are a deterrent to fully organic farming. Cranberry vines are especially susceptible to invasive weeds, whose seeds travel easily on the wind.
Cranberry sales represent a significant agricultural revenue source for Coos and Curry counties, outpaced only by forest product and seafood sales. Bandon residents have celebrated the fall cranberry harvest since 1947 with the Bandon Cranberry Festival. Hosted by the Bandon Chamber of Commerce, festivities include a parade, live music, an open-air market, a football game, and the Cranberry Court.
Want To Wade Into A Cranberry Bog? Here Are 5 Places To Visit
Cranberry farms throughout the Northeast invite visitors to tour their bogs and experience the… annual harvest during the fall. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The New England cranberry harvest is in full swing. But you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to get a taste of the sweet, tart fruits this season has to offer—countless growers invite travelers to tour their bright red bogs on cool, foggy days and haul home some fresh berries for themselves.
The visual splendor of a bog turned burgundy is reason enough to try this quintessential fall activity. But visiting a cranberry bog comes with a fascinating lesson in agriculture and American history, driven home by hands-on experiences you won’t soon forget.
Cranberries are one of just a few fruits native to North America. They were an important fruit for the Native Americans, who gathered wild cranberries and used them as medicine, dyes and (of course) food. Pilgrims soon caught on to the versatility of cranberries and created recipes that would later become classics in American cuisine.
Despite their popularity, cranberries weren’t grown on a large scale until the 1800s. Growers have since spent the last 200 years refining their cultivation techniques, moving from picking cranberries from dry land by hand to using harvesting technology to flood their marshes and corral the cranberries more efficiently. Farmers now grow enough to feed Americans some 400 million pounds of cranberries each year.
This crop doesn’t usually come from massive commercial farms, though—small cranberry-farming families still play an important role in the harvest. It’s a heralded tradition for many of these families, who’ve been harvesting the same bogs for generations. In fact, the average cranberry farm has been handed down for 2.5 generations. And 25% of farmers at Ocean Spray, the world’s leading producer of cranberry products, are 4th generation or greater. Cranberry growing is family farming at its finest.
Want to see what this uniquely American heritage is all about? Here are five cranberry farms where you can tour a bog and taste crimson goodness fresh from the vine this fall.
Ocean Spray owner-growers Jeff and Kim LaFleur open their 23.6-acre bog in Plympton, MA, to visitors from around the world for hands-on cranberry harvest programs. Hop on a viewing tour or sign up for the “Be The Grower Experience,” where you can slip on waders and help out with the harvest yourself. Mayflower has also teamed up with award-winning chef Stephen Coe to host a series of bog-side cranberry harvest dinners that are sure to sell out this month.
A.D. Makepeace Company
Want to see the world’s largest cranberry grower at work? Take a tour of A.D. Makepeace Company in Wareham, MA, to learn how this farm has been cultivating berries for 160 years. The 90-minute tours let you interact with farmers and see the wet harvest in action. Makepeace also offers pick-your-own cranberry tours on dry land, where you can take home the berries you bag—no waders required!
Fall is the perfect time to check a visit to a cranberry bog off your travel bucket list. (Photo by… AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Pine Barrens Native Fruits
If you’re in New Jersey this month, there’s no better place to experience the local cranberry harvest than at Pine Barrens Native Fruits in Brown Mills. On the farm’s flagship harvest tours, fifth-generation grower Brenda Conner gives visitors a fun, informative presentation on the connection between local history and cranberry culture. Then, guests head out on a specially designed bus (where every seat is a window seat) to take in panoramic views of the picturesque bog and watch crews gather fruit. Finally, you’ll get to taste cranberries for yourself during a cooking demonstration at the end of the three-hour tour.
Cape Farm Supply & Cranberry Company
Curious about organic cranberry farming? Look no further than Cape Farm Supply & Cranberry Company, the largest organic bog on Cape Cod. It runs cranberry tours through the spring, summer and fall, where you can learn what it takes to run a bog all year long. You’ll leave the farm in Harwich, MA, with a newfound respect for these incredible berries.
Flax Pond Farms
Meet four generations of family workers at Flax Pond Farms, a 100-acre farm in Carver, MA. Their bog tours will not only teach you about cranberry farming and dry harvesting, but will also have you trying your hand at sorting berries as they come out of an antique separator that dates back to the 1920s. At the farm store, you can sample shots of cranberry juice or even try hot mulled cranberry tea—perfect for warming up on those chilly fall days.
What Is A Cranberry Bog – Do Cranberries Grow Underwater
If you’re a TV watcher, you may have seen commercials with happy cranberry growers talking about their crop with hip waders’ thigh deep in water. I don’t actually watch commercials, but in my mind, I do envision crimson berries growing on bushes that have been submerged. But is this true? Do cranberries grow underwater? I think a lot of us suppose that cranberries grow in water. Read on to find out how and where do cranberries grow.
What is a Cranberry Bog?
The flooded crop site I have envisioned is called a bog. I guess someone told me that when I was a kid, but what is a cranberry bog? It’s an area of soft, marshy ground, usually near wetlands, an important part of how cranberries grow, but not the entire story.
Where Do Cranberries Grow?
A cranberry bog needs to have acidic peaty soil for fruitful berries. These bogs are found from Massachusetts to New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Quebec, Chile and primarily in the Pacific Northwest region which includes Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
So do cranberries grow underwater? It seems that cranberries in water are integral to their growth but only at certain phases. Cranberries do not grow underwater or in standing water. They grow in these specially constructed low lying bogs or marshes in acidic soils similar to those required by blueberries.
How Do Cranberries Grow?
While cranberries aren’t grown their entire existence in water, flooding is used for three phases of growth. In winter fields are flooded, resulting in a thick covering of ice that protects the developing flower buds against cold temperatures and dry winter winds. Then in the spring, when temperatures warm, the water is pumped out, the plants flower and fruit is formed.
When the fruit is mature and red, the field is often flooded again. Why? Cranberries are harvested in one of two ways, wet harvest or dry harvest. Most cranberries are wet harvested when the field is flooded, but a few are dry harvested with a mechanical picker, to be sold as fresh fruit.
When fields are going to be wet harvested, the field is flooded. A giant mechanical egg beater stirs the water about dislodging the berries. Ripe berries bob to the top and are gathered to be made into juices, preserves, frozen or any of a 1,000 different products including your famous holiday cranberry sauce.
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Cranberry bogs, ubiquitous in Southeastern Massachusetts, can be found in every New England state.
They are enjoying something of a revival, as family farmers over the past decade have reclaimed and renovated old cranberry bogs—or built new ones– throughout New England.
Cranberry bogs are low shallow bowls of acidic peat soil near plentiful sand and water. They have four layers, starting with clay at the bottom, gravel, peat and sand.
Workers harvest cranberries during ‘Cranberry Time,’ which runs from late August through September in Southeastern New England.
A Massachusetts cranberry grower
History of Cranberry Bogs
If the Pilgraims served cranberries at the earliest Thanksgiving, they would have used them as a sweetener or a flavoring ingredient, not as a dish.
The first cranberry entrepreneur, Henry Hall of Dennis, Mass., noticed that his cranberry plants thrived when sand blew over them. He figured out how to transplant cranberry vines, fence them in, spread sand on them and flood the cranberry bogs at harvest time. That way, the cranberries floated to the top for easy picking.
Word spread about Henry Hall’s technique and cranberry bogs began flourishing in Southeastern Massachusetts. Some Massachusetts vines are more than 150 years old.
A vintage can of cranberry sauce
The cranberry industry advanced further when Marcus Libby Urann abandoned his profession as a lawyer to buy a cranberry bog. Urann made the first canned cranberry sauce .
In 1930, he joined with two other cranberry growers to found the cooperative that became Ocean Spray. Ocean Spray bottled and sold Cranberry Juice Cocktail starting in the mid-1930s. Urann is buried in Hanson, Mass., deep in cranberry country.
The Harwich Historical Society has an exhibit of cranberry culture (open in the summer) at its museum, at 80 Parallel St. in Harwich.
Here, then, are actual six cranberry bogs, one in each New England state.
A 1940 cranberry picking machine.
In the late 19th century, Killingworth, Conn., had more than 20 acres under cranberry cultivation. Farmers eventually neglected their bogs, except for the Evarts family, which cared for the family bog for more than a century.
Sometimes they had help weeding and maintaining the bog from one of their biggest customers, Bishop’s Orchards, a Guilford, Conn., farm since 1871.
In 2016 Keith Bishop renovated the old Evarts family bog, planting 2.7 acres of the new hybrid Scarlet Knight cranberry vines.
Today it’s the only cranberry harvesting bog left in Connecticut.
The Killingworth Land Conservation Trust also bought two old cranberry bogs, now known as Pond Meadow Natural Area and Cranberry Hollow.
155 Pond Meadow Rd, Killingworth, Conn.
Sugar Hill Cranberry Co.
The Sugar Hill Cranberry Co. is a small family farm in the Down East town of Columbia Falls. John and Christine Alexander harvest three kinds of cranberries on 11 acres of cranberry bogs. They grow Pilgrims, a juice berry great for wine making; the popular Stevens and the heirloom variety Howes.
Christine grew up in Massachusetts cranberry country with relatives who harvested cranberries back in the 1940s.
256 Sacarap Road, Columbia, Maine
Flax Pond Farms
Picking cranberries on Cape Cad.
You may have once noticed a picture of Jack and Dot Angley on Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice labels (click here to see it and scroll to the bottom).
They bought their 100-acre farm in Carver, Mass., in 1967. It includes a 34-acre cranberry bog that farmers have harvested since the 1890s. Today the bog produces cranberries for Ocean Spray Cranberries.
As recently as 40 years ago, up to 30 farmworkers harvested the berries with hand-held scoops and hauled them to shore by wheelbarrow. Today harvesting machines pick the berries, which a helicopter then lifts to waiting trucks.
When the bogs freeze solidly enough, sanding machines apply 1/2 to one inch of sand on the ice. It settles on the vine, stimulating new vine growth and smothering some winter insect pests.
You can visit Flax Pond Farm starting Nov. 24 for fresh-cut Christmas trees and handmade wreaths.
Click here for four other Massachusetts cranberry bogs you can tour.
58 Pond St. Carver, Mass.
Cranberry Meadow Pond
New Hampshire doesn’t seem to have any commercial cranberry bogs left. But back in the late 19th century, farmers harvested cranberries from bogs in Auburn, Manchester and Berlin, according to the Cow Hampshire blog.
Wild cranberries still grow in New Hampshire bogs, but you have to know how to look for them.
You might try the 4.5-mile Cranberry Meadow Pond Trail, which runs from downtown Peterborough to the summit of Pack Monadnock. The trail winds through some of the area’s most beautiful conservation land. For a map, click here.
Off Old Street Road near the intersection with Route 101, Peterborough, N.H.
The Greene Company
Cranberries in Rhode Island date to about 1855, when Abiel T. Sampson started planting his cranberry bog in Coventry. Eventually he expanded it to become the largest in the state. Sampson hired local families to pick the cranberries by hand for two cents a quart.
After Sampson died, the cranberry bog changed hands several times until Mr. and Mrs. Robert Leonard bought it in 1966. They ran it as the Coventry Cranberry Co. Today, The Greene Company, a 103-acre family farm in nearby Greene, harvests cranberries from the bog.
The company won a preservation award for restoring the antique cranberry processing barn on the property, built in 1890.
1065 Narrow Lane, Greene, R.I.
Vermont Cranberry Company
Bob Lesnikoski harvests cranberries from Vermont’s only commercial cranberry bog in Fletcher. He built the bog, or bed, himself and planted the cranberry vines. Lesnikoski dry harvests cranberries, but floods the bed after picking to clean it out. He told the St. Albans Messenger in 2014 that he sells about 25,000 pounds of cranberries annually to local distributors.
Doing business as the Vermont Cranberry Co., he also sells cranberries at the Burlington Farmers Market.
2563 North Rd., East Fairfield, Vt.
This story was updated in 2019.
Related Items:1930s, Berlin, Burlington, business, christmas, connecticut, conservation, cranberries, Dennis, England, entrepreneur, Fairfield, flood, Guilford, historical society, history, Maine, Manchester, Massachusetts, museum, New Hampshire, peterborough, Pilgrims, Rhode Island, six, st. albans, Sugar Hill, Thanksgiving, trees, vermont, water, winter
Thanksgiving tables across America usually tend to look the same: the gigantic roasted turkey, the mashed potatoes, some sort of vegetable masquerading as a desert, and, of course, cranberry sauce. Depending on family traditions, that sugary smooshy stuff is either made from scratch with whole cranberries or plopped out of a can. But canned or fresh, there is a very high likelihood that your cranberries come with a less-than-sweet past.
Ocean Spray is the world’s leading supplier of cranberry-related products, controlling 75% of cranberry farms in the US and Canada since 1930. This includes their cranberry juice, fresh cranberries, craisins (which were created as an Ocean-Spray marketing ploy, by the way), cranberry sauce, and a whole smattering of other products. Ocean Spray sells 20% of their fresh cranberries during the week leading up to Thanksgiving—a whopping 80 million pounds of them.
The cheerful nature of Ocean Spray’s advertisements leads you to believe that cranberry farming is clean, natural, and safe: the cranberries sitting in lush fields of water, sparkling in the sunlight, and farmers talking about how many generations they have been sitting in a cranberry bog, just to bring fruit to your family’s table. Unfortunately, that’s not the full story.
Cranberries are grown in bogs primarily in the northern part of the US in soft, marshy ground with acid-peat soil. They’re hard to harvest on the vines they grow on, so instead, the bogs are flooded at harvest time, water reels pull them off the vine, and the cranberries float to the top, allowing them to be collected and sent off to market. Those images you see of farmers in waders, up to their chests in water with cranberries floating all around them? Totally accurate.
Reuters/Brian Snyder Cran time.
Cranberries aren’t easy to grow, and Ocean Spray figured that out quickly. In the 1950s, they began spraying bogs with aminotriazole, a chlorophyll inhibitor that had been known to cause growths in lab rats, as a means to clear the bogs of grasses, cat-tails, and other weeds. Farmers were only permitted to use aminotriazole one week after the November harvest so that it had rubbed off the finished fruit in time for Thanksgiving. But in 1959, word got out right before Thanksgiving that a small barrel of cranberries harvested in the Pacific Northwest had tested positive for the herbicide.
The great cranberry scare of 1959 set off the very first carcinogen panic in the United States.
President Eisenhower did not eat cranberries for Thanksgiving that year, and neither did the majority of the country. In a single year, cranberry sales dropped by nearly 70% (pdf). According to the American Council on Science and Health, the great cranberry scare of 1959 set off the very first carcinogen panic in the United States. This scare was mostly overblown and overhyped: The lab rats would have had to consume truckloads of cranberries treated with aminotriazole before getting any tumor growths. Still, the negative publicity had a direct effect on sales, which should have been enough of an incentive to have Ocean Spray rethink their methods. It wasn’t.
Cranberries are a finicky crop, and Ocean Spray uses all kinds of chemicals to keep their production rates high. They do not use aminotriazole anymore, but they do use a whole host of other chemicals to keep their bogs contained, such as chlorothalonil, carbaryl, and pronamide. Ocean Spray tried to have some organic fields 12 years ago, but they abandoned the idea when it proved too costly and too much work.
Indeed, a lot of other cranberry farmers have become convinced that there is no viable way to grow them organically. They note that since cranberries are indigenous to the United States and have been around for centuries, all sorts of pests have grown alongside the cranberry. Weeds and fungi can become immune to pesticides, and strains can start to occur that require the use of new and different chemicals—this is particularly true when a crop has been cultivated for a long time, like cranberries. According to most farmers, this makes the use of chemicals necessary, and some would argue it’s the only way to grow the fruit. According to Massachusetts Cranberries, “Pesticides are an important part of a typical management plan used in all commercial agriculture including cranberries. In order to minimize pest damage, cultural controls, as well as biological and chemical controls, are used.”
Then there are the environmental considerations. Since cranberry bogs are pumped with water right before harvest, that water ends up mixing with the chemicals. Once the cranberries are harvested, that same pesticide-filled water is sent back through dams, ditches, and pumps, and ends up back in local bodies of water.
Reuters/Brian Snyder Sea of red.
It would make sense for cranberry farms to be held to some US government oversight, such as the Clean Water Act, but due to a confusing loophole, they aren’t. Agricultural run-off from places like cranberry bogs and rice fields is not regulated, and Ocean Spray takes full advantage of that ambiguity. In Wisconsin, for example, cranberry bogs have destroyed more wetlands than all other uses combined, and the evidence is mounting that continuing non-organic farming of cranberries will continue to be an immense environmental hazard.
The lack of support, education, and proof that cranberries can be farmed organically has hindered the sustainability of the cranberry industry. Ocean Spray has made sure that cranberry farming has remained stagnant. With their deep market control they could help their farmers convert to organic methods, but it would be costly and time-consuming to do so. Instead, Ocean Spray all but requires their farmers to use these pesticides on their crops. In this way, they have been monopolizing the industry and controlling the narrative as a cost-savings strategy with little regard to the health of their farmers or consumers buying their products. Ocean Spray did not respond to our requests for comment.
But if you want to have your cranberries and eat them too, there are some sustainable companies out there beginning to combat the corruption, including Fresh Meadow Farms and Cranberry Hill Farms in Massachusetts and Starvation Alley in the Pacific Northwest.
Starvation Alley is hoping to change the way farmers grow their cranberries. They are doing this by incentivizing cranberry farmers to go through a three-year certifying process to become organic cranberry growers. “We’re a certified B-corporation—we open up our practices to other cranberry farmers to show them that you can grow cranberries organically,” says Alana Kambury, owner of Starvation Alley. “We learn a lot about cranberry farming from them too. In many cases, these farmers have been growing cranberries for generations—we’re new to it and have a lot to learn from each other.”
By going organic, 100 pounds of fertilizers per year per one-acre bog are kept out of the local waterways.
While those farmers are going through the lengthy transition from being conventional cranberry farmers to become certified organic, Starvation Alley buys their fruit so those farmers don’t take a huge loss while they are transitioning. “We buy their fruit at 75 cents per pound, which is well-above what most conventional farmers are paid: The market rate has been dropped to 20 to 25 cents per pound, which isn’t financially sustainable. It’s very hard to be a cranberry farmer right now,” Kambury says. By paying conventional farmer’s a premium for their fruit as they undergo organic certification could be a game-changer in how all conventional farms begin to make the switch. Starvation Alley then uses transitioning farms’ fruit in products such as raw, cold-press juice to a variety of businesses looking for a high-quality cranberry concoctions, including Salt & Straw ice cream, Hopworks‘ beer, and various kombucha companies.
“There are so few resources for organic cranberry farming. Most commodity crops have federal funding and grants to grow their crops organically. That doesn’t exist for cranberries,” Kambury says. By going organic, 100 pounds of fertilizers per year per one-acre bog are kept out of the local waterways. This works to provide a long-term solution that will ensure future organic crops and the health of the surrounding environment.
Kambury is hoping to use her experience to create change within the cranberry industry. In February 2017, Starvation Alley is holding the first organic cranberry farming conference in the US. Kambury explains that regardless of whether or not attendees want to partner with Starvation Alley in the future, she wants to create a network of support and community for all organic cranberry farmers.