Cranberry production: the journey from farm to juice bottle

by Caroline Brown

With approximately 15,000 acres of cranberry bogs, Massachusetts is the second largest cranberry-producing state. (Wisconsin is the first.) I recently spent an afternoon driving around southeastern Mass. looking at cranberry bogs and learning about cranberry farming.

Cranberries typically grow in wetland areas, thriving on the sandy, acidic soils and high-organic matter that are typically found in such ecosystems. They exist in harsh conditions such as those in bogs and other wetlands because they can withstand harsh winds and ice, and they are immune to many bacteria and diseases common in overly wet areas.

The cranberry is one of only three native American crops that are commercially produced. (The other two are Concord grape & blueberry). Indians first used cranberries as a food source, for dye, and for its healing properties. It wasn’t long before European settlers caught on to the benefits of cranberries, and they were first successfully cultivated in the early 1800s.

(To learn more about the natural history of cranberries, read my first cranberry entry.)

The first commercial cranberry beds were constructed in wetlands, but now they are usually built in areas with a shallow water table. An unflooded cranberry bed looks like a low field surrounded on all sides by a dirt berm. The topsoil is scraped off and used to build the berm, which serves as a dike. The topsoil is replaced with 4-8 inches of clean sand, which is shaped to have a slight hill in the center to promote drainage. The beds are installed with irrigation equipment and planted with cuttings from established plants.

A lot of people think that cranberry beds are constantly underwater but that isn’t so. Beds are irrigated regularly, but are only flooded twice — in the fall to facilitate easier harvest, and in the winter to protect them from freezing. Though it might sound counterintuitive, ice actually helps protect the plants. Sand is spread on the top of frozen bogs to protect them from frost damage and for pest control; when the ice melts, the sand settles to the bottom of the bog and helps replenish the sandy bottom.

Late September and October are peak cranberry harvesting months. When the berries are ripe, the beds are flooded and mechanical harvesters remove the berries from the plants. The ripe berries float in the water and are raked into a corner of the bed, where they are mechanically pumped from the bed. Because they’re harvested in water, helicopters are often used to transport the crop to a separate area for sorting.

I’m not through with cranberries. Stay tuned, a post on the environmental aspects of cranberry production is coming up.

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17 Comments to “Cranberry production: the journey from farm to juice bottle”

  1. I grew up in New Jersey and remember lots of visits to the Pine Barrens (Batsto Village, a Revolutionary War historical preserve, was a bog-iron mine and foundry) and seeing flooded cranberry fields.

    I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve hated cranberry sauce since I was a kid. Canned, always — yecch. Probably the jelly texture and tart taste is what did it (jelly is supposed to be sweet!).

    Is it possible to incorporate cranberry bushes into a garden setting, or do they really require *boggy* soils?

    • yes, you can grow cranberries in your garden. they require an acidic soil with a pH around 4.0-5.0. peat moss works very well. you can either grow them in a pot or a plot in your garden. clear out a patch in your garden and fill with peat moss. plant the cranberry plants in this plot. make sure they stay watered but they do not require to be submerged like many people believe the false idea that they grow in water. hope this helps a little bit! i have never grown a cranberry plant outside but only in a greenhouse. when i get my own house i will most definitely plant them though :)

  2. Those are beautiful photographs. I love the colour of the cranberries awaiting their harvest. It was fun to read this post and learn more about how cranberries are cultivated.

    It’s too bad that so many of our experiences with cranberries centre on sweet cranberry sauce (which is a poor second to fresh, homemade cranberry sauce).

  3. I agree, the photos are lovely! You are lucky to be able to see this type of farming, firsthand C, very interesting. G

  4. Firefly & Kate, I have always hated c. jelly too. It’s so….processed. It’s like a jello salad! Thank heavens we have more options these days.

    Also Firefly….you can cultivate cranberries in a home garden, though I haven’t had any experience with it myself. Bill Cullina of New England Wildflower Society says in his book Native Trees, Shrubs, & Vines that he has a 6′ x 6′ patch that provides a “big batch of jelly” every fall. They are a good shrubby groundcover in the right area. They just need to have moist acidic soil, so it might put off a lot of surrounding plants.

    Kate & Geraldine–do you guys know each other, as it seems like you’re both from Saskatchewan!

  5. No C, Saskatchewan doesn’t have a big pop. but its a big province LOL. Haven’t lived there for quite a while now. ;)

  6. That’s a fantastic image of the cranberry bogs, thanks for the post, a very interesting read.

  7. Love the floating cranberry picture! I think recipes should be next! LOL

  8. Can cranberries be produced/grown in North East Texas sandy loam bottom lands. These bottom lands have a shallow water table.

  9. Hi J.M., I don’t know if they’re heat tolerant enough for Texas. I would not expect you could have commercial production there, but it couldn’t hurt to try a couple of shrubs. It’s good that your soil is sandy, you definitely need acidic soil too. Have you had your soil tested? Also, I would recommend asking your county ag extension agent if there is a variety or cultivar that is heat-tolerant or that has proven to do well in NE Texas.

    Good luck, let us know how you make out.

  10. Why and how do you farm cranberrys under water? We read somthing about cranberrys in class. How do you get the water out of the pit?

  11. Hi I’m from Australia. Recently I saw an advertisement for Cranberry Juice on the TV. It showd a Farmer harvesting the Berry on the lake. I was most interested to see how the berry was harvested and was surprised to see the people involved wading around in waterproof suits and actually raking the berries on the top of the water. Isn’t it amazing that after 70 years on this planet I never realised just how Cranberries were grown. Thanks to the farmer on the TV and to this Web site. As far as I know we don’t grow these in AUSTRALIA – the only suitable areas are the Fog Dams in the Northern Territory – but I can’t see the Crocodiles sharing their home with Cranberry Farmers. Anyway thanks for the great photos. Sorry no photos from here – have a great life. See ya !

  12. love cranberry so beautiful

  13. You have missed how chemically dependent the cranberry farming is. I live near a bog that is going out of business because their fertilizers and weed killers have turned the pond downstream into a green algea sludge. Now they have drained the pond that has been their source of water to flood the bog and created a mudflat in front of my house. They did this without notifying any of the people who abut the pond or the bog. In cooperation with the town and state governments, they managed to “return the area to nature” – a nature that had been absent for a century. It may look pretty but cranberry agriculture is not good for the environment.

  14. Great cranberry beds. They are really waiting to be picked up!

  15. what a great cranberry field. you surely did a great job growing them

  16. Reblogged this on Hungry for Fresh Local Organic Safe Sustainable and commented:
    Ever wonder how cranberries grow? Here’s a quick look at farmlands or farm marshes called bogs.

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