The cranberry is a slender, trailing native North American shrub (Vaccinium macro-carpon) that grows in moist, sandy soil. The fruit berry is small, red, quite tart, and high in vitamin C. The berries are used either fresh or in processed foods such as juices, jams, and jellies. Vines are planted in sandy, peat-rich soil that is acidic and often flooded with water for more efficient harvesting. Cranberries grow wild in the northern climes of North America. The cranberry is one of only three fruits native to North America, the blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium and V. corymbosum) and the Concord grape (Vitaceae lubrusca) being the other two. There are about 1,200 cranberry growers in North America and cultivation occurs only in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington State. Today, at least 200 billion cranberries are harvested each year and the annual sales exceed $1.5 billion dollars. Of that, Ocean Spray Cranberry Growers Cooperative markets 90% of the annual yield in the United States.
Because cranberries are an indigenous fruit, the Native Americans used them in a number of ways—fresh, ground, and mashed and baked with cornmeal. They mixed dried cranberries with dried meats and melted fat to make pemmican—a survival food for winter. Cranberry poultices, medicinal teas, and dyes were also used. European settlers thought the flower of the cranberry vine resembled the crane's head—hence the name cranberry—and used them extensively by 1700. Sailors used them to stave off scurvy because of their high vitamin C content.
Commercial cranberry production began in Cape Cod in 1815 and early commercial producers picked cranberries by hand. Cultivated throughout the nineteenth century in the East as well as the Midwest, individual growers often devised their own innovative machinery to meet harvesting needs. Nearly all attempted to address the problem of laborious picking. Individuals rigged up suction pickers that worked like vacuum cleaners, motorized pickers, homemade weed whackers, and hand scoops for pulling cranberries out of the water during wet harvesting. Standardized water reels and dry-pickers are now commercially available and greatly increase efficiency.
The raw material needs are modest. The grower requires vines, which often flourish without abating for over 75 years (many are a century old). The land must be peat-rich, sandy, and acidic The beds must be situated near water that can be used to flood the cranberry marshes. No additives are mixed with fresh cranberries prior to packaging.
It is critical to protect the cranberry vines from frost. Temperature alarm systems are installed to alert the growers to low temperatures. When frost is impending, the irrigation system shoots sprays of water over the plants. Heat is released from the water before it freezes thus protecting the plants from damage.
Dry harvesting is the best method for obtaining a firm, fresh bagged cranberry.
Wet harvesting is used when the final product will be juices, jams, and jellied sauces.
Quality control of agricultural products such as cranberries includes a wide variety of activities not always associated with what we might generally consider quality control. However, first and foremost, it is important to propagate new vines from old vines that have produced luscious, full, large berries. Second, the vines must be planted in soil that is truly sandy and full of rich peat to ensure necessary nutrients are provided. Then, the beds must be carefully constructed so that the earthworks and dikes adequately control the water flooding. Also, frost warning equipment which alerts that grower as temperatures drop dangerously low must be heeded and sprinkling equipment put into action or the entire crop is at risk.
As with other crops, pests are always a factor in quality control. The grower must be vigilant about checking for pests such as cranberry tipworm or cranberry fruitworm that can ruin a crop if left unchecked (the fruitworm sucks out the meaty centers of berries, fills it full of its excrement and then encases the plants or vines in its silky web). Ultraviolet light traps can be used to attract the fruitworm and then spray the concentration of bugs with a USDA approved insecticide. In fact, insecticides are used for many different bugs but the industry tries to keep their use to a minimum. Fruit fungi and diseases are also issues for cultivators. The industry uses chemicals and carefully monitors weeds, over fertilization, and handling in order to reduce these diseases.
Finally, the machinery used in the processing of cranberries is constructed so as not to bruise or damage the berries. While these are fairly firm berries, they can be bruised if overhandled.
While some cranberry growers do not use pesticides on their crops most do use chemicals to keep pests away from the berries. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains strict controls on acceptable pesticides that may be used on fresh fruit and the growers must heed these guidelines. Washing and cleaning the fruit minimizes chemical residue remaining on the harvested fruit. Because the cranberry is harvested in or near water and some of the chemicals specifically formulated to fight diseases and berry blight are moderately toxic to fish, the cultivators must carefully monitor the effects of chemicals on the local fish population.
Cranberry products are very popular and supply never has been equal to the demand. Since there are only 1,200 growers in North America and appropriate land available for cranberry crops is limited because of environmental factors such as wetland protection and limited water access, supply will not grow significantly. Presently, 90% of cranberry consumption occurs in North America. That demand will keep pricing competitive.
Cranberry juice has been an effective home treatment for urinary tract infections for some time and new studies suggest that cranberries are rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Jaspersohn, William. Cranberries. Boston: HoughtonMifflin,1991.
"Berry Good for You." The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (February 1999): 2.
Mottau, Gary. "Water Berries." Horticulture (October 1984): 34.
Cranberries in New Jersey. http:/www.burlco.lib.nu.us/ .
Cranberry cultivation in Massachusetts. http://omega.cc.umb.edu/~conne/marsha/ccintro.html .
Maine Cranberry Growers. http://www.nemaine.com/ .
Ocean Spray. http://www.oceanspray.com/ .
Oregon State University. http://osu.orst.edu/ .
Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. http://wiscran.org/ .
— Nancy EV Bryk