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Growing Together: Don't let those Ocean Spray commercials confuse you. Here's how cranberries are grown

Gardening columnist Don Kinzler teaches readers about the fruit many will consume over the holidays.

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Cranberries are taken for granted as a side dish, but their growth and production are fascinating.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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Have you seen the cranberry commercial with the two guys in the cranberry bog standing in hip waders with water nearly to their elbows? Cranberries would seem to grow in water, right?

That assumption isn’t totally accurate, though. Cranberries do require an acid peat bog, but being submerged in water would kill the plants during the growing season. Why then, do we see cranberries usually pictured in water? Read on to discover why.

Cranberries and Thanksgiving turkey go hand-in-hand, but many of us, including me, don’t know much about how they’re grown, mostly because the main growing regions are east of the Dakotas and Minnesota. Many of us take cranberries for granted but this fruit has a fascinating history and method of production.  

Cranberries grow in bogs, which are beds layered with peat, sand and clay, and this unique acid bog habitat restricts commercial production to just a few states, including Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and a few in Oregon and Washington. An adequate supply of fresh water is needed, plus a growing season that extends from April to November.

Cranberries grow on trailing, woody vines and can grow indefinitely, with some commercial vines in Massachusetts being over 150 years old.

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A common misconception is that cranberry bogs are covered with water. On the contrary, bogs are flooded just two times a year, once during winter to keep plants insulated from the cold, and once at harvest time to float berries to the water’s surface for easy collection.

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Cranberries grow on trailing, woody vines and can grow indefinitely, with some commercial vines in Massachusetts being over 150 years old.
Contributed / Pixabay

Cranberries are harvested in September and October by one of two methods. For processing, most are harvested by the wet method, where growers flood the bogs and loosen the fruit by machine, so it floats to the surface. For the fresh market, most cranberries are harvested by the dry method, using mechanical comb-like pickers.

My coworker and good friend Esther McGinnis, North Dakota State University Extension horticulturist, recently wrote a fascinating article about cranberries, and the information in the rest of today’s column is complements of Esther.

Were cranberries served at the first Thanksgiving? No printed menu exists from the 1621 Thanksgiving in Massachusetts but it is feasible that the Wampanoag tribe may have brought cranberries to the feast. Cranberries are one of the few fruits that are native to the United States and were prevalent on the East Coast.

The history of cranberries doesn’t begin in 1621. The Wampanoag and other tribes have been gathering these nutritious berries for hundreds if not thousands of years. The fruit was eaten in a number of different ways, including fresh, dried and baked into fritters.

One of the more innovative uses was to mix dried venison meat, fat and crushed cranberries to make pemmican. Arguably, this could have been the world’s first protein bar. The fruit’s acidity along with the meat fat prevented the pemmican from spoiling and this portable product could be taken on long trips.

Cranberries are still a culturally important crop for the modern Wampanoag tribe. They have inhabited Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years and have a long history of gathering cranberries for the winter. To this day, the Wampanoag celebrate Cranberry Day each October. Children have a school holiday to gather with their elders in the local bogs to harvest berries and preserve their traditions.

Most individuals have never seen cranberries growing in the wild, because they grow in wetlands called bogs that have sandy, acidic soil. The optimum soil pH for cranberry production is astonishingly acidic and is comparable to acid rain. Considering that most soils are alkaline in the northern Great Plains, this precludes cranberry production in our region.

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Both wet and dry harvesting methods are used in commercial cranberry production. For the lower-cost processing market, farmers flood their fields at harvest to a depth of 18 inches; the water is churned to shake the berry from the vine, and the cranberries, which each contain an air pocket, float to the surface. Then the farmers use a boom to gather the floating berries.

For the higher-quality fresh market, farmers use lawnmower-sized harvesters to painstakingly pick the fruit. This process is very labor intensive and leaves a lot of berries in the field. The woody cranberry vines grow in moist soils but are not submerged in water during the growing season because they would die.

More gardening columns from Don Kinzler

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.
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