We continue our never-ending quest to absorb everything we can about all types of farming, and just in time for America’s most revered Day of Gluttony, N and I learned how to harvest, sort and process cranberries! One of the farms we worked on in Oregon was home to three organic cranberry bogs, so we were able to see firsthand how this unique fruit is both grown and harvested.
A one-acre dry cranberry bog with harvester. The portion on the left still needs to be harvested, while the section on the right is finished.
Cranberries are grown in Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as in Canada; they’re a low-growing vined shrub and the plants can live indefinitely if cared for properly. The vast majority of cranberries are conventionally wet-harvested, in the traditional bog we know from the Ocean Spray commercials. The organic farm we worked on, however, used dry harvesting. This is substantially more labor-intensive and has lower yields, but organic dry-harvested berries sell for nearly twenty times the amount that conventional wet-harvested berries do. This is primarily because dry cranberries can be sold fresh, packaged into bags in your produce department. Wet berries need to be processed into juice or other cranberry products almost immediately.
Aren’t they gorgeous? And so good for you. I ate a lot.
The harvester at work.
The harvester removes a lot of branches, but not all.
We filled burlap sacks with berries for transport to the packing shed.
A surprising number of cranberries are left behind after harvesting.
We followed our farmer with clean, dry burlap sacks, ready to replace the one on the harvester as soon as it was full. It’s really important not to overpack the bags and not to double-stack them on the trailer, as too much pressure will crush the berries and render them unsaleable. I hand-harvested a few pounds of berries left behind; this was unbelievably labor-intensive. Agricultural work is not for the faint-of-heart.
Traditional wet-harvesting involves flooding the bogs and a harvester like this one.
The berries float to the surface of the flooded bog, where they can be easily scooped.
We watched a traditional farmer wet-harvest his bogs on a miserably cold, rainy day: not at all fun. Our farmer can only harvest when it’s dry and clear, as the goal is for the berries never to get wet. Even the morning dew had to dry before we could harvest.
Our daily harvest, ready to be put through the sorter.
Every day after we harvested, we took our berries to a shared packing shed. Our farmer ran the berries through the sorter, and N and I sorted and packed on the opposite side. Once the berries started tumbling through the chute on our side, we really had to work quickly to keep up, and to ensure that our crates didn’t get too full. As with loading the bags during harvest, it’s essential not to crush the berries on the bottom.
Berries are run up the conveyor belt, where they’re tested for ripeness.
We stood here and sorted through the berries as they came down the belt, removing small branches, twigs, leaves and any damaged berries.
Unusually for most produce, cranberries actually bounce when they’re ripe (and float when they’re flooded), so the sorter both removes the larger vines and branches and tests the cranberries for ripeness. Berries that don’t make the cut are dropped into the yellow crates down below, and they’ll eventually be fed to pigs – just like our apple cider waste.
Berries that are split, crushed or otherwise open need to be removed, or they’ll spoil.
Each crate holds about fifteen pounds of fruit after sorting.
Once our cranberries were sorted into the crates, they would be sent to a central distribution center, where they would be sorted again, washed and bagged. And then they’ll be on the shelves at your local grocery store!
Only in cranberry country would you see fresh cranberries in bulk; mostly they’re sold pre-bagged.
I grew up in a household where the only “cranberries” we ever saw were in the exact shape of the can they came in. Once I discovered fresh cranberries, I always wondered why Americans only seem to use these once a year. They’re tart, crisp and delicious, and high in vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants, among numerous other health benefits. They’re delicious in oatmeal, baked goods, smoothies and of course as a condiment for roast turkey, goose or ham. Plus, they freeze beautifully, so buy a few extra bags when they’re on sale, and use them throughout the year. They’re great dried, too, but be aware that Craisins and other sweetened dried cranberries can contain as much as 85% sugar by weight, so they’re not nearly as healthy as you’d like to think. Buy unsweetened dried cranberries whenever possible. Oh, and “cranberry juice cocktail”? More sugar than soda. Don’t ever, ever drink it.
Making your own cranberry sauce is by far the easiest thing you’ll prepare for a holiday dinner, and you can do it well in advance. Rinse one bag of fresh cranberries and place in a medium saucepan. Add about 1/2 cup water or orange juice (or Grand Marnier, if you’re feeling flush), a pinch of salt, the grated rind of two oranges or clementines, a bit of grated fresh ginger (or 1/4 tsp. powdered ginger) and about 1/4 cup brown sugar or honey. Simmer gently to allow the cranberries to burst, and stir occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking. Cook over low heat for about fifteen minutes or so, or until the sauce is the consistency you’d like, adding more liquid if needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning. I like to keep my cranberry sauce super-tart because I love the flavor and don’t like things overly sweet, but feel free to add more sweetener if you like. The sauce will thicken once refrigerated and will keep in the fridge for at least two weeks. I keep it thick and use it as jam on toast, too!
Need more inspiration for fresh cranberries? Go here.