How to harvest cranberries?

Cranberries bounce when they’re ripe, and some called them bounceberries.” Their blossom resembles the neck of a sand hill crane, thus another name, “crane-berries.” Gradually, this word became “cranberry,” the name we use today. These berries, blueberries and Concord grapes are North America’s only true native fruits. This is easy to understand, for many cranberry vines produce for up to 150 years. This curious, ruby-red berry straight from the vine is so tart only wild bears enjoy them!

Native Americans were quite familiar with cranberries when the Pilgrims arrived in North America. They made good use of the benzoic acid in the berries to preserve meats. They also crushed the berries for red blanket dye and used the substance to treat wounds and nervous disorders. English sailors soon used cranberries for their anti-scurvy properties along with their salt pork and crackers as sea rations. On one occasion in 1677, the colonists sent a large amount of cranberries and Indian corn, along with 3,000 codfish to King Charles II in England to assuage his royal wrath toward colonists for perceived transgressions.

Domestic cultivation of cranberries began in North America around 1810, shortly after a Captain Henry Hall, of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, noticed the wild cranberries grew better with sand packed up around the vines. He began transplanting vines, fencing them, and spreading sand over them himself. Others copied his technique, and the number of area growers grew steadily from then on.

Cranberry bogs, which are peat-layered beds, with sand, gravel and clay, were originally created by glacial deposits in New England, some parts of Canada and in the Northwestern United States. This eco-combination supports many rare animal and plant species. Red-bellied turtles, Plymouth gentian, red root, water lilies and wild orchards thrive there. So do otters, great blue herons, wood ducks, osprey, foxes and deer. Many growers open their bogs to nature loving visitors during certain parts of the year.

Contrary to popular belief, bogs are not flooded most of the year. When berries are harvested for manufacturing, or crushing, the bogs are flooded and the floating berries skimmed off mechanically. To gather whole berries, growers dry-harvest them in what is termed a well-practiced art, which is far less mechanical.

It’s high cranberry-eating season around November each year. They’re in — in muffins, breads, cakes, cookies, chocolates, salads, compotes, granolas, as well as in the looked-for holiday sauces. Currently, 1,500 growers have 40,000 acres under cultivation in the U.S. and Canada producing about 575 million pounds of cranberries, up 6 percent over last year. Some newer cranberry uses are in salsas, soups, smoothies, fruit butters, chutneys, fruited Bries, beer, wine and mixed drinks.

We have been able to buy fresh berries each fall. Sweetened, canned jellied berries, sweetened whole-berry sauce and frozen berries are available year ‘round. Sweetened, dried, more portable cranberries, however, have not been available until a few years ago. Stainless cranberries travel in lunch bags and trail mixes under general snacking conditions. They now go wherever raisins have gone.

Not until recently have 100 percent, pure cranberry/fruit juice beverages been available to us. This is good news for consumers and came about thanks to competition between large processors. Be sure and read the label. Where sugared and watered juices were the norm, now it is mixed with other fruits for natural sweetness. Now you’ll find cranberry paired these days with mango, Georgia peaches, Key Limes, Granny Smith apples, tangerines, strawberries, grapes, raspberries, cherries and blackberries.

An eight-oz. serving of cranberry/fruit juice supplies 130 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of vitamin C. The juice is also a source of calcium, plus vitamins A and E.

Cranberries are a proven aid in fighting urinary infections, and beneficial in certain bronchial disorders. Currently, researchers are looking at the berry’s contribution to better heart health and possibly a factor in reduction of tooth plaque.


1 8 oz. Wheel Brie cheese

2 cups fresh cranberries

½ cup water

½ cup sugar (or to taste)

¼ tsp. nutmeg

½ cup chopped pecans

· Bring water and sugar to boil. Stir until sugar dissolves.

· Add cranberries and simmer slowly for 10 minutes until berries burst.

· Remove from heat, cool slightly, add nutmeg and pecans.

· Let stand until thickened. (This can be made a day in advance. )

· Pour cranberry mixture over cheese, bake in 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes until cheese is slightly melted.

· Serve with assorted crackers.

Harvesting Cranberries: How And When To Pick Cranberries

Due to their high concentration of vitamin C and antioxidant properties, cranberries have become an almost daily staple for some, not just relegated to their annual use on Thanksgiving. This popularity may have you wondering about picking your own cranberries. So how are cranberries harvested anyway?

How to Harvest Cranberries

Commercially grown cranberries are known as the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) or sometimes referred to as lowbush. They are actually woody, perennial vines that can stretch out runners to 6 feet. When spring arrives, the vines send out upright sprouts from the runners, which then produce flowers followed by cranberries in the fall.

These commercially grown lowbush varieties of cranberry are grown in bogs, a wetland ecosystem consisting of sphagnum moss, acidic water, peat deposits, and a mat-like substance on the water’s surface. The bog is layered with alternating strata of sand, peat, grave and clay and is a specific environment that cranberries are well suited to. In fact, some cranberry bogs are more than 150 years old!

All very interesting, but not really getting us to how farmers harvest cranberries or when to pick cranberries.

When to Pick Cranberries


the early spring, the cranberry runners begin to flower. The flower is then pollinated and begins to develop into a small, waxy, green berry which continues to mature throughout the summer.

At the end of September, the berries have ripened enough and harvesting cranberries begins. There are two methods of harvesting cranberries: dry harvesting and wet harvesting.

How are Cranberries Harvested?

Most commercial farmers use the wet harvest method because it reaps the most berries. Wet harvesting gets about 99 percent of the crop while dry harvesting only gets about one-third. Wet harvested berries must be heat processed and made into juice or sauce. So how does wet harvesting work?

Cranberries float; they have pockets of air inside, so flooded bogs facilitate the removal of the fruit from the vine. Water reels or “egg-beaters” stir the bog water up, which agitates the berries from the vines causing them to float up to the surface of the water. Then plastic or wood “booms’ round up the berries. They are then lifted to a truck via a conveyor or pump to be taken away for cleaning and processing. More than 90 percent of all commercial cranberries are harvested in this manner.

Picking cranberries using the dry method yields fewer fruit, but that of the highest quality. Dry harvested cranberries are sold whole as fresh fruit. Mechanical pickers, much like large lawnmowers, have metal teeth for plucking cranberries from the vine which are then deposited into burlap sacks. Helicopters then transport the picked berries to trucks. A bounce board separator is used to distinguish the fresh berries from those that are past their prime. The firmest, freshest berries bounce better than old or damaged fruit.

Before machines were invented to aid in harvesting cranberries, 400-600 farm workers were needed to hand pick the berries. Today, only about 12 to 15 people are needed to harvest the bogs. So, if you’re growing and picking your own cranberries, either flood them (which may be impractical) or dry pick them.

To do this, make sure it’s dry outside. Good berries for picking should be firm to the touch and a red to dark crimson color. After harvesting, you can try the “bounce test” against a flat surface to ensure your ripe cranberries are nice and springy.

Some quite spectacular sights are to be seen in October and November in the major cranberry growing regions. This is harvest time, when the fully ripe berries are ready to be picked. Most cranberries are harvested by flooding the bog with water. Farmers then use special equipment to agitate the water, which gently removes the cranberries from their vines. Air in the berries allows them to float to the water’s surface, where they are then channelled along in big swathes of crimson colour. This makes for quite a dramatic and striking autumnal sight. Berries harvested by this ‘wet’ method are generally used for juice, sauce and relishes. Whole fresh cranberries are normally ‘dry’ harvested by mechanical pickers, guaranteeing whole berries of consistent top quality and without damage.

The way to tell if your cranberries are super fresh is to drop one on the floor from a bit of a height. If it’s fresh it will bounce. The bounce means the berry is still nice and firm. Whole firm fresh cranberries are the ones you want for making your own cranberry sauce at Christmas, or for adding to other festive relishes and chutneys. Cranberries are naturally sharp in taste, so you will need to add sugar during cooking to your own taste.

Check out farm shops for fresh Irish cranberries, but get in quick because there won’t be very many! North American fresh cranberries are now available in supermarkets. It’s not too early to buy them. These berries freeze well for when you need them. This saves having to rush frantically round the shops during Christmas week, when you may find all the fresh berries are sold out.

For a simple Cranberry Sauce, place cranberries in a pan with sugar to taste and just enough cold water to cover. Simmer gently till the berries pop. Remove from the heat then cool and place in a jar or bowl covered with cling-film. Cranberry sauce keeps well for a few days in the fridge.

You can also combine a few fresh cranberries with our own Mr Jeffares Blackcurrant Cordial. Blend the cranberries and blackcurrant cordial together with natural yogurt and milk, for a delicious festive smoothie packed with super fruit vitamins and anti-oxidants. Both blackcurrants and cranberries are known to possess high quantities of valuable Vitamin C to help fend off winter coughs and colds.

How Cranberry Bogs Work

When you see pictures of farmers who seem to be standing in the middle of a floating field of cranberries, do you know exactly what’s going on there? Simply put, harvest time has arrived.

The process of harvesting cranberries off the vine used to be labor-intensive and inefficient because the berries were hand-picked. Over the years, more effective methods have been implemented to harvest the cranberries.


Since the cranberry fruit has pockets of air inside of it, someone came up with the brilliant idea to flood the bogs with water to help remove the berries from the vines. The first successful water harvesting was in the 1960s; this is the predominant method of cranberry harvesting used today. Also known as wet harvesting, the dry bogs are flooded with up to 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) of water the night before the harvest. The following day, the farmers use water reels nicknamed egg beaters to dislodge the berries from the vines so they’ll float to the water’s surface. The farmers then wade through the bog and round up the fruit with large wooden or plastic brooms. This process is called corralling. Once the bobbing berries are gathered together, they’re transferred to a loading area where they’re lifted by conveyor belts. (Sometimes, a pump truck will suck the berries right off the bog.) The berries are then cleaned before processing. More than 85 percent of the crop is harvested in this manner; however, the use of the water reel to beat the berries off the vines is relatively harsh on the delicate fruit. Therefore, wet harvested cranberries are used mostly for juice drinks, sauces, or as ingredients in other products.

Dry harvesting is the best way for farmers to collect the freshest berries. This method of harvesting is used to supply the fresh fruit market. Growers walk with mechanical rakes trailing them. These rakes have metal prongs that are used to comb the berries off the vines. As the machine propels itself through the bog, the tines skim along the ground under the vines, stripping off the berries, which are then elevated into bags. Afterward, the fruit is taken from the bogs by vehicle (sometimes by helicopter) to protect the vines within the bog. The cranberries are then promptly delivered to receiving stations — and then to your grocery store produce aisle.


Dry harvested cranberries represent the fruit that is sold as fresh fruit at farmer’s markets, road-side stands and grocery store shelves. This traditional method of harvesting now represents about 5% of the Massachusetts cranberry harvest. The other 95% of the crop is picked wet and is used to make juice, sauce, dried cranberries, among other products. Even though fresh fruit represents a small fraction of the total harvested crop, it nevertheless is an important aspect of the cranberry industry and for many growers, a way of life.

In order to pick the fresh fruit, the vines must be completely dry. Even a slight shower the night before, heavy dew, or damp conditions from a frost night is enough to delay harvest until the conditions improve on the bog. Depending on the harvest season, these conditions can provide more than enough challenges to growers.

Today, dry harvested bogs are picked using mechanical pickers with styles named Darlington, Furford or Western. These self-propelled harvesters all work in a similar manner, combing through the bogs and the fruit is then conveyed into a burlap bag or wooden box. In previous generations, wooden boxes were the collection device of choice but today most growers utilize burlap. Once the bag is full, the operator stops the machine, removes the bag and sets it on the bog, places an empty bag onto the machine and continues harvesting. After a sufficient amount of bags have been filled, the bags are then generally transported into larger containers. Some growers carry the bags off of the bog by hand, some by tractors with trailers, while others empty the bags into large plastic bins that can hold about 300 pounds of fruit. They then stack two more bins on top of the original bin, filling each bin as they proceed. The stack of three bins is then flown off of the bog via helicopter and onto waiting flatbed trucks for delivery to the screening plant or storage barn.

© Denzil Green

Cranberries are small, round, and hard fruit. If you pop a few raw ones in your mouth and manage to bite through them, you would find that they have major pucker power: they are seriously tart. But you wouldn’t really do that as cranberries are a fruit that really must be cooked to make them soft and that really must have some sweetener of some sort to counteract the tartness at least a bit.

In North America, the big cranberry growing regions are British Columbia, Oregon, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Massachusetts. In the UK, the regions are North Wales, Northern England, and Scotland. In Europe, the variety of cranberries grown (Vaccinium oxycoccos) is just slightly different, in that the berries are a bit smaller.

White cranberries are cranberries harvested early, about a month early before they turn red. They are less tart than mature ones, and so give off a sweeter juice.

Cranberries don’t grow in water, even though that’s how most photos of cranberries in the field show them (that’s just the harvesting stage.) They are grown in bogs, but a bog isn’t full of water, like a swamp: instead, it is ground that consists of stuff like clay, gravel, peat and sand, which absorbs water poorly, so that if there is a sudden downpour, the water will sit on top the ground for some time. Not many plants can grow in bogs, but cranberries can.

Cranberries grow on low trailing vines. A plant needs about three years of growth before it will start producing berries. Harvesting is done in one of two ways, depending on how the berries are going to be sold.

In the “wet harvesting” method, the bog is flooded to a depth of about a foot and a half (45 cm.) A machine with a beater goes through the patch stirring up the water to coax the berries off the plants, without damaging the plants (after all, undamaged Cranberry vines will last a long time: some vines in Cape Cod were planted over 150 years ago.) The berries float on the surface of the water. They are then collected, either by workers with rakes or “booms” that push them into a corner for collection, or by shallow-water boats with what is essentially a vacuum cleaner attached that sucks them up. About 90% of berries are harvested in this way, and these are used commercially in juices and sauces. This wet harvesting method originated in the 1960s.

Before that, you only had the other method, which is now called “dry-harvesting”: walking through the dry fields and, originally, picking them by hand. Over the years, they developed wooden “combs” that you could brush the berries off the plants with, and now they have machines with comb-like conveyor belts that do the job. 10% of the harvest is still done in this way; these are sold as fresh fruit for use in cooking and baking.

Cranberry harvesting happens between Labour Day and Hallowe’en. They are available fresh in bags from September to December. The rest of the year, you can get frozen or processed.

When you are buying cranberries, you want hard, unbruised ones. Most will be a gorgeous red, but don’t fuss if a few aren’t, as the colour can vary from very light red to dark red. They should be hard enough to bounce: soft ones won’t. But chances are you won’t get any soft ones, as part of the selection process during packing involves bouncing them gently, and the non-bouncers don’t make the cut. Soft ones are over-ripe and starting to spoil.

Cranberry juice was the second most popular juice in North America in 2004 (9.5%), with orange juice being still the most popular by far (having close to 35% of the market.)

Cooking Tips

Dump fresh Cranberries into a colander, sort through them and discard any that have become bruised or soft, as well as any stems. Then rinse under cold water. If a recipe calls for chopping, you can use a food processor: use the pulse action with the chopping blade. If you are making a cranberry sauce, in which the berries are going to be boiled down to a moosh, and the recipe says to chop them anyway, there is actually zero need to chop them and that is a wasted step,

Some will advise you that add a teaspoon of butter or margarine to your cranberries when boiling them will eliminate foam and stop them from boiling over, but if you use a good-sized pot, you won’t get any boil-over problem.

You only need to cook cranberries in a pan until most of them have popped (you can squish the hold-outs with the back of a spoon.) Cooking them further can bring out a bitter taste in the berries.

If you are using frozen cranberries, there is no need to thaw them before cooking with them.

The Cranberry marketing boards are coming up with lots of ways to use Cranberries other than sauce at Thanksgiving and Christms, but here’s a few more:

  • You can use dried Cranberries as you would raisins (provided they aren’t covered in chocolate or anything);
  • Cranberries are very nice combined with veg such as beet root or onion;
  • Toss a few into a bumble berry pie;
  • Lovely tossed into any pie or square recipe using apples or pears.


12 oz = 350g = 3 cups whole = 2 1/2 cups chopped finely = 2 pints (4 cups) of sauce (less if you make a jellied sauce)

Storage Hints

Store fresh, unwashed cranberries in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks.

After that, freeze. No preparation needed for freezing, just wash, let them dry off, put them in a freezer proof bag and freeze for up to 1 year. No need to thaw before cooking with them.

Store dried cranberries in a sealed plastic container out of the light. They will keep indefinitely.

History Notes

The Algonquin Indians introduced the first settlers in the New England area to Cranberries. They have since been transplanted to Great Britain and Scandinavia (in the early 1800s for both). Commercial cultivation began in Massachusetts in the 1840s, which still now grows half of the crop in America each year.

Literature & Lore

The early settlers thought that cranberry blossoms resembled the heads of cranes bending over for a sip. If you have seen pictures of cranberry plants in blossom, they do in fact look like cranes. So, they called them “crane berries”, which of course over time got shortened into the word we now use. By 1680, they were definitely referred to as “cranberries”.

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Eight types of cranberries have been “corralled” in a bog at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Cranberry Station, ready for collection. Note the color variation. Photo by Erika Saalau Rojas, UMass Cranberry Station

There are certain things that might come to mind when thinking about cranberries: A certain shade of red, a certain small size, and a certain kind of tartness. But these characteristics can differ among cranberry varieties—of which there are more than 100, according to Carolyn DeMoranville, an associate extension professor and station director at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Cranberry Station.

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Some of that variation is obvious in the photo above. It depicts a bog containing eight different cranberry varieties, or cultivars, grown at Cranberry Station, which conducts research on water, pest, and nutrient management. The different colors stem from the plants’ genes as well as the berries’ stage of ripeness.

For all you cranberry lovers out there, here’re a few more tidbits about the festive treat. (Plus, explore the science of cranberry sauce and other Thanksgiving sides in this SciFri segment.):

· Many of the 100 varieties of cranberries are heirlooms—that is, native species that have been commercially cultivated since the 1840s. But “most of those are more like conversation pieces now,” says DeMoranville. Indeed, only about 12 varieties dominate commercial cranberry production, and they entail a mix of heirlooms and hybrids. (See a sample of heirlooms and hybrids in the picture below).

· Cranberries contain pigments called anthocyanins that confer a reddish color. Different varieties contain these pigments in different proportions—hence their range of hues.

· Cranberries are typically grown in bogs, because they need “either natural or constructed wetlands soils, acid soil, ample supply of fresh water, and temperate climate,” says DeMoranville. These days, however, commercial cranberry bogs are manmade affairs—and they’re not inundated year-round. Most of the time, growers irrigate the plants like other crops. They might flood the bogs to keep the leaves from drying out in the winter, and to facilitate harvesting. Indeed, cranberries grow inches from the ground, so to pluck them by hand is “pretty back-breaking,” says DeMoranville. Once a bog is flooded, growers use machines to knock the berries into the water, and then harvesters don waders and corral the berries into a concentrated area where they can be pumped through a suction line and into a truck.

Four mature cranberry cultivars (clockwise, from upper left): early black, a Massachusetts native; DeMoranville, a hybrid developed at Rutgers University (named for Carolyn DeMoranville’s father); Stevens, a hybrid from the first USDA cranberry breeding program, released in 1960, and the most widely planted hybrid in the U.S. today; bugle, an unusually shaped Massachusetts native (not widely planted). Photo by Carolyn DeMoranville, UMass Cranberry Station

· The average pH of a cranberry bog is around 4.5, the same acidity preferred by rhododendrons and azaleas, which are cranberries’ distant cousins. Cranberries are more closely related to blueberries, which share the same genus.

· The life cycle of a cranberry—that is, from the time a bud forms to the time its fruit is harvested—lasts about 16 months. “In the beginning, at about mid-July, a plant starts to initiate and form a flower bud for the following year,” says DeMoranville. Those flower buds produce berries in September of the following year. While new buds are sprouting, berries might be forming from the previous year’s buds.

· More than 60 percent of cranberries produced in the United States comes from Wisconsin, according to DeMoranville. Massachusetts—part of the native range of the American cranberry—represents another 25 percent. New Jersey and coastal areas along the Pacific Northwest contribute the rest of the bulk of the U.S. harvest.

· The standard measurement for cranberries is barrels, which harkens back to when cranberries were shipped in wooden containers. Today, one barrel equates to 100 pounds of weight. The heirloom cultivars in production today yield, at best, around 200 barrels per acre, amounting to about 9 million cranberries, estimates DeMoranville. Newer, hybrid cultivars have been known to produce 500-600 barrels per acre, says DeMoranville—the plants are bigger, with larger leaves, and they produce more berries that are bigger and heavier.

· It takes about three years to build a crop of cranberries to full production potential, says DeMoranville. There are some cranberry plots in Massachusetts that have been around for more than 100 years.

Meet the Writer

About Chau Tu


Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.

The color of cranberries is so vibrant, so gorgeously red, it’s hard to imagine them in any other hue.

Yet the cranberry industry is hyping a new and altogether different color for this fruit — white. The chief attraction is its less-tart taste, while certain potential health benefits are believed comparable to those of the red cranberry.

For producers, the white berry is another way to boost consumer interest in cranberries, a North American native whose sales have been flat in recent years.

“It’s created a lot of excitement in the cranberry industry,” said Sharon Newcomb, spokeswoman for Ocean Spray, the large grower cooperative that overwhelmingly dominates the American cranberry business.

When you picture the crimson cranberry sauce soon to brighten Thanksgiving tables, a pale version made from white berries sounds downright anemic. However, we’re not likely to see that phenomenon soon. Nor are fresh white cranberries available in stores.

What we are seeing are clear, white-cranberry juice drinks, introduced in 2001 and already multiplying.

With the latest additions, these now come either corn-syrup-sweetened, artificially sweetened or sweetened with grape-juice concentrate, and there are versions featuring white-cranberry juice alone or combined with other juices, such as peach or strawberry.

Consumers apparently have taken to the drinks, which racked up $100 million in sales in their first year, said Newcomb, whose company grows most of the country’s cranberries and produces most of the cranberry products, including the new white-cranberry juice drinks.

Washington ranks fifth nationally in growing cranberries, though the white ones are harvested in Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere.

In one sense, there is no such thing as a white cranberry — or at least not one that’s botanically separate. Instead, white cranberries are simply conventional cranberries picked early, before they fully mature and turn red. In fact, when you buy fresh red cranberries you’ll sometimes see small remnants of white on some of the berries.

Unlike most fruits, which are sweeter when fully ripe, cranberries are less tart when picked while still white — that is, about two weeks early — said Newcomb.

White cranberries yield a smoother-tasting, somewhat less-tart drink than the red berries, which are so acidic they require copious amounts of added sweeteners to make them palatable. White cranberries also require sweeteners, but in somewhat smaller amounts.

Even so, the white-cranberry juice drink contains only slightly fewer carbohydrates than the red, as shown on nutrition labels, indicating sugar levels are about the same. The calorie counts are close, too — 120 in 8 ounces of the white drink, compared with 130 in the red.

Nutrition experts generally have little good to say about juice drinks, which because of added sugar or other ingredients are not pure fruit juice and are more caloric. (Some health authorities even frown on pure juice, saying whole fruit is a better choice, with more fiber and fewer calories.)

However, cranberry juice drinks have a special attraction beyond taste for certain individuals, namely women who are prone to urinary tract infections. A number of studies back up what folklore long has suggested — that cranberry juice helps prevent or cure such infections. (Drinking lots of water helps, too).

More recent studies indicate that white cranberries work about as well as red ones against urinary tract infections, said Amy Howell, a Rutgers University researcher in plant chemistry.

The berries’ main weapon, according to Howell: condensed tannins, which prevent bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder, causing infection.

She said that when women drank an 8-ounce glass of white-cranberry juice each morning and evening in one Rutgers study, tests showed the bacteria-flushing effect lasted for 10 hours after the juice was consumed. The study was published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Howell’s research is funded partly by the cranberry industry, as well as government and other sources. She works at a Rutgers center that primarily studies cranberries and blueberries.

Whether white cranberries contain the beneficial antioxidants richly present in red cranberries’ pigment is not yet known, Howell said. Antioxidants may exist in the pigment precursors present in the white berries, she said, but there have been no studies to test that possibility.

Will we ever see fresh white cranberries in stores? There are no plans for that so far, said Newcomb, “but it’s something we’ll always be looking at.”

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