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Written by Alison Mooradian   
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Thursday, 09 November 2017

Growing Cranberries

Ever look to buy organic cranberries? Well, you should not expect to find them easily. When Jared Oakes and Jessika Tantisook of Starvation Alley decided to farm cranberries in 2010, they asked other farmers how it could be done organically. But everyone said that it was not possible. Jessika’s response to this belief that organic cranberries could not be grown was, “So, of course, we had to try.”1

Cranberry Basics
Cranberries are a perennial fruit that require specific growing conditions, such as acid peat soil and a significant fresh water supply. They grow on low vines amongst sand, peat, gravel, and clay, known as cranberry bogs or marshes, from April to November. Glacial deposits initially created these bogs over 10,000 years ago, which are part of larger wetlands systems.2

There are two major types of cranberries: the North American variety (Vaccinium macrocarpon) and the European variety (Vaccinium oxycoccus). The European variety is commonly known as lingonberry or English mossberry, and it is smaller than the North American variety. Major production areas in the United States include Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.3

Cranberry Bushi

The History of Cranberries
For centuries, Native Americans gathered wild cranberries for a myriad of purposes. They ate them as fresh fruit, made tea out of their leaves, formed them into cakes, used them to dye clothing, and used them as bait to catch game. They even used cranberry leaves as a tobacco substitute! Native Americans also used cranberries for medicinal reasons, ranging from treating fevers to stomach issues.4

The cultivation of cranberries in the United States began in the mid-1800s by European colonists. However, the Europeans did not adapt the Native Americans’ multitude of uses for the fruit. Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific, stated, “The Europeans used cranberries the way they would have used similar fruits… as a sour fruit sauce with wild fowl.” The Europeans often sweetened the cranberries’ bitterness with honey.5

Why are organic cranberries hard to find?
Cultivating commercial cranberries has a significant environmental impact, due to the large amounts of fresh water needed and the persistence of cranberry pests.6 There are two main ways to harvest cranberries: wet harvesting and dry harvesting. Since cranberries have pockets of air in them, wet harvesting works by flooding the bog with up to 18 inches of water the night before a harvest, allowing the cranberries to float to the surface for easier picking. Wet harvesting is generally used for berries that will be used for juice, sauce, or as ingredients in other products. Dry harvesting is used to collect cranberries that will be sold as fresh fruit. In this method, growers walk through the bog with mechanical rakes that pull the berries off of the vines.7 Cranberry pests thrive in the bog ecosystem and generally fall into three categories: insects, fungal diseases, and weeds.8

Surprisingly, even though cranberries are one of the few commercially grown crops that are native to North America, very little research has been done on them. This is part of the reason why only 200-300 acres out of the 40,000 acres of commercial cranberry bogs are organic.9 Organic cranberry growers have taken many years and a lot of trial and error to transition non-organic bogs to organic. For Oakes and Tantisook of Starvation Alley Farms in Washington state, the process to transition their 10-acre bog took three years. Tantisook shared that they learned strategies from organic growers from other industries; for instance, she learned how to use compost tea to build up healthy soil organisms from an organic blueberry grower. John Stauner, who owns the 65-acre James Lake Farms in Wisconsin, said of growing organic cranberries, “With organics, we’re managing an ecosystem, not just a monoculture.” Stauner uses a variety of pest management strategies, including flooding his fields to kill insect larvae, using mating disruption, killing weeds with vinegar, and propagating his most aggressive cranberry vines so they can hopefully outcompete weeds.10

Researchers are currently working on how to prevent fruit rot in cranberries by installing drainage systems to remove surplus water from bogs. They are also working on breeding programs to create pest-resistant cranberries. While Starvation Alley is helping three other cranberry farms in the Pacific Northwest transition to organic, Tantisook stated that more industry money is necessary for “figuring out how to make organic more viable and accessible to growers.” If and when Ocean Spray, which represents 60% of all U.S. cranberry growers, decided to grow organically, there would perhaps be more funds directed towards cranberry research.11

Encouragingly, Tantisook cites that big industry shifts have already occurred: “In the four short years we’ve been in business, we’ve seen a change in what people think is possible. It seems like semantics, but hearing experts go from saying ‘you can’t grow organically’ to ‘growing organically is hard’ is a huge step forward.”12

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 08 November 2017 )