Set the Table with…Cranberries
Written onDecember 05 , 2012
The Land of Bog is a mysterious world of acidic, sandy peat soil and an abundance of water. Here live the cranberries: low-trailing vines with small evergreen leaves and tart, wine-colored berries. They are wise and venerable plants that theoretically can live forever; some cranberries on Cape Cod are more than 150 years old. Being native North American berries, they were popular with Native American humans, especially for use in pemmican but also as a medicinal and dye plant.
Many people envision cranberries growing in water but actually, they don’t. They do require lots of irrigation, and growers flood the fields periodically for harvest, pest control, and frost protection. To create a natural boggy habitat, cranberry beds are dug down, not built up. The topsoil is removed, leaving a dike around the bed. The bed is then layered with sand, leveled, furnished with a sprinkler system, and planted. Ditches allows for irrigation and drainage.
Some of our most treasured food items seem to be those that generate a special little world around their production. How are cranberries tended and harvested throughout the year, and who is selling them in our state?
A year in the cranberry bog begins in spring, when the winter floodwaters are drained from the beds and the plants begin to grow. Sprinklers are used to protect the buds from spring frosts. The beds may be re-flooded for a short time as a way to control pests and weeds. As the plants open their pink flowers, beehives are brought in for pollination. The timing on this is critical, as cranberries are not the most popular with bees, so growers wait until a substantial percentage of the bog is in bloom; otherwise the bees will opt for wild weeds.
Summer is relatively uneventful. Weeds are hand-pulled or treated with herbicide, and growers monitor insect pests and treat for them as needed. As native plants accustomed to the low nutrient levels of a bog, cranberries do not require much fertilizer compared to most agricultural crops.
Things start getting more exciting in fall. As the weather gets colder, frost damage becomes a concern. The cranberries are turning red, and the redder they get, the more frost hardy they become. But on really cold nights they need the extra protection of a rather magical—and somewhat counterintuitive—law of physics: the Heat of Fusion. Growers use sprinkler systems to spray the fields, and the water freezes on the berries. During the freezing process, heat is released, actually warming the plants.
Cranberry harvest happens from September through November. There are two types of harvest: wet and dry. Dry harvesting combs the berries from the plants and must be done under completely dry conditions—which can be a challenge as the Northeast gets wetter. Cranberries harvested this way (only 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. crop) are used as fresh fruit. The majority of cranberries are harvested by flooding the fields. A special “water reel” or “eggbeater” machine then floats through, stirring up the water and dislodging the berries from the plants. Cranberries have hollow pockets inside (look and see!) so they float. The floating berries are rounded up like wild horses, using plastic or wooden booms, corralled, and scooped up. These wet-harvested berries must be frozen or processed immediately and are used for things like juice and sauce.
Fresh dry-harvested cranberries are graded at receiving stations before being shipped out to stores. The screening process is based on color and the ability to bounce. Overripe or damaged soft berries will not bounce, but a healthy berry will. Sorting machines use a series of bounce boards to eliminate the ailing berries. The berries that manage to leap the gates are then sorted by hand for other defects and for color.
At some point after harvest, depending on weather, the bog is flooded again. The water freezes and the cranberry plants are suspended in a crystal world of ice, safe from the harsh forces of winter. Winter is also the time for the curious practice of sanding. Every few years, a homemade sander is driven over the ice, spreading an even layer of sand. When the ice melts, the sand gradually sifts down between the vines. This helps control weeds, fungi, and pests. It also improves drainage and helps stimulate new growth of the roots and vines. This technique was discovered in the early 1800s when a Cape Cod grower, Captain Henry Hall of Dennis, observed that cranberries grew better in bogs where sand blew in from the dunes.
Vermont Cranberry Company in Fairfield is the pioneer for production in Vermont. Bob and Betsy Lesnikoski started their operation in 1996 and have been slowly and steadily expanding ever since. “I had heard that Massachusetts growers were expanding into Maine,” Bob says, “so I thought we could do it here.” Cranberries require a combination of sandy, acidic soil, lots of water, and a climate that provides sufficient winter dormancy. Vermont has the climate and the water, the sand can be provided, and Bob applies organic sulfur in years when there’s not enough “natural” acid rain.
A former logger, Bob was in position to move easily into cranberry production: “The basic construction of cranberry bogs is a lot of excavation. I had the equipment and the know-how.” The Lesnikoskis currently have roughly three acres under production, yielding 35,000 pounds annually, and Bob says they will eventually top out at five acres or so. It takes approximately five years for a bed to get up to speed on producing.
The farm uses mainly organic growing methods. Because they are the only grower in the area, disease and pests are “not much of an issue.” tThey sand every other winter, do a spring flood every other year, and on alternate years apply organic pesticides for cranberry fruit worm and fruit rot. “You can’t kill the plant,” Bob says wryly, “but there’s a lot of little things you can do wrong and that will stay with you for at least two years because of the physiology of the plant.” He uses a combination of pollinators, actively maintaining bumblebee and wild bee habitat by leaving stump piles and not mowing around the beds.
Harvest takes approximately three weeks in early October and is a busy time. Like commercial growers, the Lesnikoskis use sprinklers to protect the plants from freezing. “I’ll probably be up allnight, making sure the pumps are running—they freeze up and plug up,” says Bob. His good-natured attitude at the prospect of an all-night vigil belies the critical importance of the practice: severe frost damage can occur in as little as 20 minutes and can result in the loss of the entire crop for one year.
In contrast to large commercial operations, most of the Vermont cranberry crop is sold fresh and so is dry harvested, using a small, walk-behind, motorized combine in the beds and old-fashioned, hand-held rakes for the ditch edges. A cleanup flood is then used to float the berries that were missed, using the usual system of booms to corral the berries. These wet-harvested berries are used for juice and other processed products. Most of the dryharvested berries will be sold within six weeks of harvest.
Vermont Cranberry produces a single-strength, unsweetened juice that is sold wholesale to local companies like Aqua Vitea Kombucha in Bristol, Champlain Orchards (which uses it in their Cranberry Apple Cider), and Boyden Valley Winery (for their award-winning cranberry wine). This fall, Vermont Cranberry will also package some of their juice for retail sale. They also have a line of specialty products, such as sweetened dried berries, which they sell at farmers’ markets and from their website, vermontcranberry.com.
If you’re feeling ambitious and enterprising, you can try growing your own cranberries. Ellie Hayes and Michael Gray of Woodbury purchased 24 plants from Cranberry Creations (cranberrycreations.com) in Maine two years ago and installed them in raised beds in the sometimes-wet end of their lower garden. They spaced the plants about four feet apart, allowing room for the runners to root and eventually fill in the bed. Michael also adds both peat and sand periodically throughout the growing season, as well as an organic, acidifying fertilizer but does no extra watering.
For winter protection, they used a layer of row cover topped with 6 to 12 inches of mulched leaves. “Last fall was the first time we put them to bed,” says Ellie. But when the row cover came off in the spring, the plants looked terrible. Fungus was the culprit. “We probably covered them too early—this year we’re going to wait until Thanksgiving or maybe later to cover them.” The plants did recover nicely and produced roughly a quart of cranberries this past fall.
When purchasing fresh cranberries for your holiday meals, be sure to save a few for use in a Bouncing Berry party game. (There isn’t an official version of this, so everyone is free to creatively invent their own…perhaps after a few glasses of cranberry wine. Cranberry pong anyone?) And for a magical holiday visit to the Land of Bog, be sure to read Wende and Harry Devlin’s Cranberry Thanksgiving and Cranberry Christmas with your family.
The name “cranberry” is allegedly based on the resemblance of the plant’s flower to the neck, head, and beak of a crane (the bird, not the machine). They were also sometimes called “bearberries,” as bears were often observed eating them.
The very first commercial cranberries were planted in 1816 in Dennis, MA, on Cape Cod, and the first cranberry cooperative was established in 1904: the Wisconsin Cranberry Sales Co.
In November 1959, the American cranberry crop was contaminated with traces of the herbicide aminotriazole, resulting in the collapse of the market and the loss of millions of dollars. The incident made growers realize that they needed year-round market sales, not just holiday sales, so they developed new products such as juice blends.
Growers often use the winter season to repair, design, and build their own specialized equipment. Commercial companies have not ventured into cranberry production equipment because there are fewer than 1,000 growers in North America.