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Thanksgiving, more than most celebrations, carries a warm spirit of gratitude for the bounties produced from the earth. Similar holidays and festivals throughout the world celebrate the harvest and what it provides to sustain life during the long winter months ahead.
Early Pilgrims on the harsh shores of Massachusetts were sustained and nourished by uniquely American foods. These foods were unknown to Europeans, yet provided a biological diversity that revolutionized Old World agriculture. We enjoy some of the foods used by the Pilgrims as well as other American foods during this season.
Cranberries are a native American crop. Cranberries are one of only three native American fruits along with Concord Grapes and blueberries. They are named from the German word Craneberry because the flower resembles a crane bill.
The Pilgrims found them growing wild along the New England coast, where they were used fresh and dried by the native people. Wild varieties are common to marshlands of temperate and colder regions of North America. The American cranberry grows wild from the Canadian Maritimes to the mountains of Georgia, and as far west as Minnesota.
Cranberries are grown as a cash crop in the northeastern United States. Washington and Oregon also support a flourishing industry. Thousands of acres of ground in the U.S. and Canada are devoted to raising cranberries. Massachusetts is the leading state in cranberry production, followed by Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon.
Cranberries have been cultivated in the Cape Cod area since the early 1800s. The cranberry harvest has taken on such an important aspect that each September, Cape Cod hosts a well-publicized Cranberry Harvest Festival in honor of the crop.
Vaccinium macrocurpen requires an acidic soil and high rainfall, so they are not grown in Utah. Actually, they are grown in and harvested from natural or man made bogs. They grow on low-lying vines require an acidic peat soil covered with a top layer of sand and ample fresh water to create the bogs. The bogs are filled with water, causing the berries to float to the surface. They are then skimmed off for harvest. They don=t sound like a backyard crop even in the areas to which they are adapted. Consider the steps necessary to grow these berries. First the farmer levels the land with laser guided equipment to provide optimum water management. Soil must be sandy or sand added over the top. Workers construct dikes around the edges of each bed to allow for flooding and drainage ditches and canals put in place to move the water in and out of the fields.
The plants are established from stem cuttings. Every spring, established cranberry vines are mowed and put in bales and carried to the new cranberry bog. They spread the cuttings on the ground and disk them in. By the end of the summer, the cuttings have taken root and begun to develop into new vines. They are cultivated and encouraged to grow for three to five years before the new plantings become productive. Sprinklers are used to irrigate the crop as it becomes established and for frost protection.
In the fall, after the ground has frozen, beds are gradually flooded. As each layer of water freezes, more is added until the vines are fully encased to insulate them from the cold weather and destroy insect pests. When the floods are frozen solidly, farmers drive spreader trucks onto the ice where they deposit a two-inch layer of sand. When the water thaws in the spring, the sand sinks and covers the runners that were growing along the top of the ground causing them to root.
Periodically the fields are mowed to get more cuttings and to stimulate them to produce new, vigorous shoots that produce more fruit. Mowed beds don=t produce fruit the year they are mowed.
Cranberries can be harvested by picking or flooding. Machines go into the field while it is dry to pick the berries for the fresh market. However, to pick for the processing industry for juice and sauce, the beds are flooded and the berries are mechanically beaten from the vine. They float to the top of the water and wind or a boom system drives the berries to one end of the bed.
They are then raked onto elevators that carry them to waiting trucks. They are rushed to the plant and must be processed quickly or frozen until a more convenient time for processing. From there they are converted into many products including cranberries for your Thanksgiving table.