Cranberries, Anyone?

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, a day to celebrate the harvest and give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. Family, friends, and home. Good food, like turkey, sweet potatos, stuffing, pumpkin pie…

…And this.

What would a Thanksgiving meal be without cranberry sauce?

We get our cranberry fix from the grocery store, but the little red berries have a life before the can. They grow in the Jersey Pine Barrens. Cranberries are the Pine Barrens’ great gift to mankind.

Ok – I exaggerate a little. New Jersey is the third largest cranberry grower, behind Massachusetts and Wisconsin. But cranberries are big business in the Pines.

Have you seen those ads with farmers standing in hip-deep water surrounded by floating cranberries? Something like this:

Cranberry harvest in New Jersey. Photo by Keith Weller, USDA Agricultural Research Service.

We have been looking for this very scene, what Don calls “a sea of scarlet,” during cranberry season for several years. Until this fall, we failed in that endeavor. This year, we got lucky; we were pointed in the direction of Pine Barrens Native Fruits.

Robb, as usual, photo-bombed my picture.

Here is the story of the cranberry.

Native Americans had been enjoying cranberries – fresh or mixed with dried meat as pemmican – for centuries when the Europeans arrived. The new settlers quickly caught on to this delicious fruit. Cultivation began in the early 1800s.

FUN FACT: The name “cranberry” likely comes from the German kraanbere, or “crane berry.” The flowers of the plant resemble the neck, head and beak of a sandhill crane.

Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) grow on low vines in acidic soil. They don’t actually grow in water.

Pine Barrens cranberry growers cultivate cranberries in large low-lying areas called bogs, surrounded by channels to move fresh water, and diked roads.

Water control gates allow water in to the bog. Bogs are flooded in winter to protect the plants from cold weather. The bogs are drained in spring.

FUN FACT: Cranberries have four air chambers in each berry. That’s why they float. They also bounce!

Harvest time for cranberries is from mid-September to early November. A bog is flooded. A machine known as an “egg-beater” dislodges the fruit, which rise to the surface and are collected, or “corralled,” by booms at one end. This is the scene we’ve been searching for, and here it is.

Do you see them? No? Here, let me zoom in.

There are guided tours that give you a close-up look at the bogs and the harvest. We weren’t on the tour, just driving around the sand road-dikes. This is as close as we could get.

I’ll zoom in as far as I can go. Not what I’d wished for when I dreamed of getting cranberry harvest photos. Every bog was surrounded by water channels, so getting close-ups of berries on the vine wasn’t possible either. Who knew I’d need a wildlife lens to take pictures of a berry?

In olden days the cranberries were collected by hand. Nowadays, there are machines that scoop up the berries, and move them via a conveyor belt into a large truck. This method of harvesting cranberries – called a “wet harvest” – is used most of the time, but it’s rough on the fruit. Most wet-harvested berries go into sauces, preserves and juices.

This farm was huge, with many separate bogs. Only one that day was flooded. Down the road we came upon this:

Hmm. Orange crates, full of cranberries. What’s this?

It’s a different way of harvesting cranberries. No water involved. Dry harvesting is used to collect berries that will be sold whole, and need to be fresher.

This too is done by machine, one that mechanically combs the berries from the vines. The berries travel by conveyor into orange crates, which are left in the fields to be collected later by trucks.

Once harvested, the cranberries go into the products we love. Most Jersey farms are part of the Ocean Spray co-op, which was started in 1930 by three cranberry growers, one from New Jersey and two from Massachusetts.

FUN FACT: Cranberries are one of just three native fruits that were here before the first white settlers. The Concord grape and the blueberry are the others – and the blueberry was first cultivated in the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Cranberries are delicious, and healthy. They are rich in antioxidants, Vitamin C, and fiber. So eat up on Thanksgiving – and enjoy cranberries all year long in preserves, juices, and yummy baked goods!


5 thoughts on “Cranberries, Anyone?

  1. Very Nice Series for Thanksgiving Kim! Well done! I had gone to a presentation on the Pine Barrens at a local camera club and saw a lot images on the cranberry farms there also. Lived in NJ my whole life and never knew cranberries were a large crop here.

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