Celebrating the cranberry
Fruit native to North America enjoys a rich history
We celebrated Thanksgiving with our West Coast crew and part of the fun included a visit to Fort Langley’s 23rd annual Cranberry Festival.
The weather was picture perfect for browsing vendor booths, food trucks, local shops and, of course, a visit to the old fort with stations for cranberry stomping, beading, and baking cranberry bannock over an open fire. Organizers were anticipating about 60,000 people, and given Saturday’s fabulous weather and teeming streets, I’d say their numbers were up this year.
Why celebrate the cranberry? Along with blueberries and Concord grapes, the cranberry is one of a handful of major fruits native to North America. Dubbed the ‘crane-berry’ by early Dutch and German settlers for the flowers’ resemblance to the neck and head of crane, the name eventually was shortened to cranberry.
Cranberries were a staple food for many Indigenous people, and the cultivation of cranberries can be traced back some 200 years. Cranberries were used to make a survival cake known as pemmican. The fruit was also used in poultices and dyes.
The first documented cranberry harvest was in 1816 in Dennis, Mass., but the lowly cranberry also can trace a rich history in British Columbia.
Fort Langley, established by the Hudson Bay Co. on the banks of the Fraser River in 1827, was an important trading post, and in 1858 became the home of British Columbia. Cranberries traded with natives were packed into barrels and shipped to San Francisco for sale. In 1858, cranberries were actually worth more in trade than salmon. Cranberries, an important source of vitamin C, were eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy.
Comprising about 12 per cent of the North American crop, cranberries are gown in the lower Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island. Cultivation in B.C. began in 1946 when Jack Bell, following five years as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, became the first commercial grower of cranberries. He planted 1.2 hectares. Today, 80 growers produce some 750,000 barrels
(one barrel equals 45 kilograms) of cranberries annually.
Hardy cranberry vines thrive in conditions that would not support many other crops: acidic soil, few nutrients and low temperatures, even in summer. It takes one ton or more of cranberry vines per acre to plant a bog.
Cranberry blossoms last 10 to 12 days and rely on bees, brought in by the farmer; two hives per acre, with 30,000 to 40,000 bees per hive are needed to pollinate the crop. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water, they are grown on sandy bogs or marshes. Because cranberries float, some bogs are flooded when the fruit is ready for harvesting.
Planting a cranberry bog is very labour intensive. Pruned stems (cuttings), or rooted cuttings (plugs) are planted in a carefully groomed field. Growers must manage a newly planted bog for the first three years; it takes about five years and careful management before a bog will reap a full crop.
Cranberries are a perennial crop and can be productive for decades. Some of the fields in B.C. are as much as 30 years old and are managed by third- and fourth-generation farmers. The bogs must be renovated periodically by adding sand, renewing drainage, replacing irrigation equipment and replanting problem areas.
Cranberries grow on low lying vines in beds layered with sand and peat soil. These vines produce runners from which short upright branches form. The cranberry harvest takes place once a year, from September through the end of October. There are two methods of harvesting, dry harvest and wet harvest.
For dry harvesting, berries are harvested with a mechanized picking machine that looks like a giant lawn mower. Dry harvested fruit is “combed” by this machine as it moves up and down the cranberry bog. The fruit is loaded into bins and shipped to receiving stations where it is cleaned and packaged as fresh fruit. Cranberries sold as fresh berries are the ones you will find in the produce aisle of your local grocery store. Surprisingly, only one per cent of the crop is used for fresh berries. The rest of the crop is used for juice and dried fruit.
For wet harvesting, the bogs are flooded with water. I’ve seen the amazing seas of red fruit from the window of a plane as we flew over the cranberry bogs in Richmond, B.C. — it’s quite a sight.
The field is flooded with six to eight inches of water, then, the fruit is “beaten” off the vine with a specialized harvester called a beater that reminds me of the wheel of paddleboat. The beater agitates the water and loosens the berries from the vine. The floating fruit is then corralled and loaded onto trucks for delivery to the receiving station for cleaning. Berries will be further processed for juice, sweetened dried cranberries or sauces/ jellies.
Cranberries have four air pockets inside them. This allows the cranberries to float to the surface during the wet harvest operation. White cranberries are cranberries harvested a few weeks early before they turn red.
More than 95 per cent of cranberries grown by B.C. growers are shipped to the U.S. for use in Ocean Spray products such as juice and Craisins. Ocean Spray is a grower-owned cooperative including the B.C. growers.
When you buy Ocean Spray products you are supporting Canadian cranberry growers.
A cranberry field is flooded with water, then the fruit is “beaten” off the vine with a specialized harvester called a beater that agitates the water and loosens the berries from the vine. The floating fruit is then corralled and loaded onto trucks for delivery to the receiving station for cleaning.
Buying bags of freshly harvested cranberries at the Fort Langley Cranberry Festival to take home.
Cranberries are grown on family farms in the lower Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.