By Matt McIntosh
What are cranberries, and how do they reach your table?
Cranberries have been a staple Canadian food for a long time – a really long time.
Now most famous for their role as a tart, semi-sweet accompaniment to roasted holiday turkey, cranberries are indigenous to North America and have been valued by people living here long before the arrival of Europeans.
What are cranberries?
The term cranberry can refer to the fruit of several different plant species, some of which can be harvested from the wild. Historically, indigenous populations from the east coast to the Midwest used the red fruits of these evergreen dwarf shrubs as a food source, as a preservative for other foods, and as a medicine. Cranberries are, for example, one of the means by which people could ward off scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C.
In Canada and the United States, the American cranberry (its scientific name is Vaccinium macrocarpon) is the species grown for commercial production. Cranberry farming itself has a long history in North America, with the first cranberry farms being established in the early 19th century. Cranberry farms can now be found from coast to coast.
Worldwide, Canada is the second largest producer of cranberries after the United States. 94 per cent of all cranberries commercially produced in Canada are grown in Quebec and British Columbia. According to Statistics Canada, in 2021 cranberries were the second-most important fruit crop in terms of production volume in the country. At 156,575 metric tons produced, that’s more than blueberries, grapes, strawberries, peaches, and sweet cherries. The only fruit Canadian farmers grow more of is apples.
How are cranberries grown?
Cranberry plants are suited to moist soils. To farm them, growers plant cranberry bushes in cranberry bogs: a damp, marshy environment designed to mimic the growing conditions cranberry bushes naturally prefer. Cranberry growers often use irrigation to ensure their cranberry bushes have access to enough water even when it has not rained for a while.
Cranberry bushes start producing fruit in early summer, with young berries darkening to the iconic red colour as autumn nears. In late September and October, the berries are harvested. As described by the Canadian cranberry co-operative company, Ocean Spray – a brand you may have seen for sale in your local grocery store – harvest is accomplished by flooding the bog with up to 18 inches of water. Growers then use water reels, nicknamed “eggbeaters,” to churn the water and loosen the cranberries from the vine. Each berry has tiny pockets of air that allow it to float to the surface of the water, where they are easily gathered.
Water also plays an important role in protecting cranberry bushes. During the winter, growers will again flood their cranberry bogs to form a layer of ice over the plants. This stops them being damaged from very intense winter cold, as well as from the freeze-thaw cycle. In spring, water is also sprayed on cranberry bushes to protect new buds against frost.
Like any crop, successfully growing cranberries means overcoming a number of challenges. For Mandy and Brian Dewit, cranberry farmers in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, insect pests like fireworm – the larvae of a type of leafroller moth – can be particularly nasty.
Fireworm larvae feed on both cranberry bush foliage as well as fruit. If left uncontrolled, the pest can significantly reduce the volume of cranberries available for growers to harvest. They can also significantly lower the quality of fruit being harvested, since more berries will have been damaged in the feeding process. If fireworm is identified as a problem in a specific area, cranberry growers can spray for them. But even then, getting ahead of the issue can be hard.
“It can be a really big problem. If you miss your spray timing by one day, within a week you will see a huge impact,” says Brian. Mandy adds that fireworm “is always in the field,” and that she and Brian have to constantly monitor whether the number of fireworms is growing.
The couple also reiterate winter damage, or the potential of damage from extreme cold and spring frost, is a perennial concern. Brian says an extreme cold event several years ago for example, is estimated to have reduced the size of British Columbia’s cranberry crop by half.
Ensuring they have access to enough water to insulate their cranberry bushes is very important. Indeed, Brian calls ice “the best insulator.” Like controlling insects, though, knowing exactly when to spray their cranberry bushes with water makes all the difference. Thankfully, the couple say modern weather forecasting techniques help growers plan ahead.
Despite the myriad of challenges, the Dewits really enjoy farming cranberries. They currently supply fruit for wholesale markets, as well as operate their own independent, direct-to-consumer brand of cranberries and cranberry products. From cider and jellies and sauces and raw berries, the family’s products are sold in their on-farm shop as well as at local markets and grocery stores across the British Columbia.
“We really enjoy setting up the farm. It’s a ton of trial and error. I think maybe that’s farming in general. There’s not one tried-and-true method of doing anything, and we talk, research and get ideas from other farmers,” Mandy says.
“Harvest in the fall is the best time. It’s insane, and we work crazy hours, but you finally see the fruits of your labour. There’s still plenty to do the rest of the year, but it’s just not as intense.”
Mandy and her family enjoy connecting with the public, too. Despite the busy fall harvest season, they open their farm to the wider community for several weeks each year, and have previously partnered with organizers at Fort Langley’s annual Cranberry Festival to showcase how cranberries are grown.
“We really want people to understand what it takes to grow food. A lot of people think cranberries grow in water year-round, but they don’t…There was no real agricultural connection with the festival at all, so we reached out to see if we could help make that connection,” Mandy says. “Now, people attending the festival have an opportunity to take a bus tour to our farm and see cranberry harvest in action.”
“Everybody wants the experience. It’s partially to educate the public, and we try to time our harvest to weekends so people can see what we do.”