Deep Dive: What's Up with Cranberries?

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Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you had a relaxing and joyful holiday last week.

What was your favorite food at the Thanksgiving dinner table?

Did you have cranberry sauce? I did.

Actually, you probably did too seeing as 1/5th of the annual cranberry harvest is consumed at Thanksgiving!

Today, let’s look past the stars at the Thanksgiving table and instead focus on a colorful supporting character. We’re taking a deep dive into a cranberry bog to explore this nutritious and beloved fruit!

How do cranberries grow?

Cranberries are one of the few fruits that are native to North America. Historically, they have been consumed as food and also used for medicinal purposes. The name cranberry was originally “craneberry,” named because the pilgrims thought the plant’s flower looked resembled the head of a crane.

Growing cranberries requires patience; they have very specific growing conditions and take 16 months to produce! They are perennials and their vines thrive in impermeable beds made of sand, peat, gravel, and clay. These beds are called “bogs.”

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Cranberries don't grow covered in water. Instead, they are kept moist most of the time and are flooded just twice per year. The first flooding occurs in December to protect the plants from the bitter cold of winter and the water is drained in the spring. Then the plants flower and begin to grow their fruit in June. The second flooding is during the harvest season in October. The berries are separated from their vines mechanically, they float to the surface, and they are corralled and removed from the bogs (cue the amazing overhead photos of massive piles of floating cranberries).

About 10% of cranberries are dry-harvested, meaning their vines are NOT flooded. This method is more labor intensive, but also prevents bruising on the fruit. Dry-harvested cranberries are typically sold fresh as whole fruits, not dried or chopped up.

The US cranberry industry was valued at around $385 million in 2012 and the 8 million barrels produced annually are grown in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Cranberry farming is typically carried out on small family-owned farms. Certain bogs can be traced back through 7 generations of growers in one family! In the small town of Carver, MA, you can find the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, one of the leading online sources of information on this berry. Care to attend the Association's annual Cranberry Harvest Celebration next October?

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Cranberries and sustainability

Cranberry growing calls for some serious pest management. The wet bogs are ideal places for weeds and insects to thrive. Historically, chemical pest controls (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) have played a large role, along with cultural, biological, and mechanical controls, for dealing with pests. Growers must continue to innovate on ways to stay ahead of pests while protecting the environment.

Because of the high need for pest management tools, it’s very difficult to grow cranberries organically. It requires much more time and labor. It is also riskier financially for the grower. Civil Eats recently commented on the dearth of organic cranberries and noted that a little less than 1% of all commercially managed cranberry bogs in this country are organic. Interestingly enough, today I was able to find both conventional and organic cranberries in my Trader Joe's. Could it be that Los Angeles is a market for that one percent of organic cranberries? It seems so, and I'm not surprised.

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But don’t think that organic is the only way to grow cranberries sustainably. As I’ve written before, the organic label is not a panacea for sustainability issues. It’s nuanced and many sustainably-focused growers in various sectors of agriculture don’t go through the organic certification process for a variety of reasons. At the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, members explore farm renovations aimed at improving environmental, economic, and social sustainability without going organic. And that’s totally valid.

The Ocean Spray Cooperative

A discussion of cranberries would not be complete without mentioning the Ocean Spray Cooperative. This organization was created in 1930 and is headquartered in Massachusetts. It is behind 60% of the world’s cranberries and includes over 700 cranberry growers in the US and Chile. It played a major role in expanding the cranberry industry during the 20th century through the creation and marketing of cranberry juice products and dried cranberries.

Ocean Spray demonstrates transparency in its sustainability practices through its 2012 sustainability report, a 31 page document available on its website. The organization’s stated sustainability pillars, which are documented in detail within the report, are: agriculture, climate and energy, waste, water, and packaging. Yes, growing and processing cranberries requires large amounts of environmental resources, but Ocean Spray employs a team of people to improve efficiency, reduce inputs, and ensure integrity along the supply chain.

What are some uses for cranberries?

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As juices: around 95% of cranberries harvested in the US are processed and used in juice. Cranberry juice is sold on its own or combined with other fruit juices.

As sauces, relishes, and chutneys: this is the most popular method of eating cranberries, especially at holiday dinners in November and December!

Dried: cranberries can be dried like grapes and are sold as salad toppings or for baking. You have likely seen them as “craisins,” a term created and trademarked by Ocean Spray.

In baked goods: ‘tis the season for holiday cookies, so put your new cranberry knowledge to use with this deliciously-tart cranberry orange cookie recipe. You can use fresh or dried cranberries, and feel free to skip the glaze, the cookies are delightful without it.  


What’s your favorite cranberry recipe? Share it below!