ILWACO, Wash. – Sloshing deliberately through water up to her knees, Guillermina Hernandez used one hand to swish floating cranberries away from the edge of the acre-and-a-half bog as she pulled the clearing boom around the perimeter with the other.
It is harvest time on CranMac Farm, and mist is rising from the bogs on a crisp October morning along the Long Beach peninsula, the cranberry capital of Washington state.
The boom, a growing line of 2-by-8 planks hooked together by flexible joints at 10-foot lengths, slowly snaked out in opposite directions, turning at the corners inside the rectangular bog to create a corral for the red berries that were beaten from their vines the previous afternoon.
After being connected end-to-end, the boom was drawn together in an ever-tightening polygon as Guillermina’s husband, Juan, and others dragged V-shaped planks through the bog to force berries to the center.
When the boom seemed to have created an area rug of red sitting in the middle of a floor of cloudy brown water, a small motor sputtered to life and the panels of an elevator scooped berries out of the water and whooshed them into large wooden bins waiting on the backs of trucks.
The experienced six-person harvesting crew can gather and suck up an acre-and-a-half bog in a little over an hour. Malcom McPhail, who owns CranMac with his wife Ardell, said many of the crew have worked on the farm for years, including Juan – who has worked year-round on the farm for 17 years – and Guillermina, who are originally from Jalisco, Mexico.
Fun fact No. 1 about the cranberries: The second one will taste better than the first one you bite into.
Fresh from the vine, cranberries have a taste somewhere between tart and bitter, which becomes clear when you bite into one. The second one will taste better because your taste buds have adapted.
They have little natural sugar and five times the acid of other commercial fruit crops like Red Delicious apples, peaches or grapes.
Most grade-school lessons about the first Thanksgiving mention cranberries being among the food items the Wampanoag Indians introduced to the Pilgrims after they settled in Plymouth. That may or may not be true; cranberries also grow in parts of England and the Netherlands, so the Pilgrims who had lived in both countries may have recognized them on their own.
But cranberries were plentiful in marshy areas of New England and Native Americans also used the red juice to dye blankets and clothing. It’s unlikely the Wampanoags or the Pilgrims made cranberry sauce or cranberry jelly for that first Thanksgiving feast. Neither the natives nor the Europeans would have had the sugar to sweeten them up.
Native Americans mashed cranberries into dried deer meat to make pemmican, which could be stored for long periods and helped them through times when fresh food was in short supply. They also knew, without the need for FDA studies, the berries had medicinal qualities. High in vitamin C, the berries were eventually prized by ship crews to help prevent scurvy on long voyages.
For some 200 years after that first Thanksgiving, however, cranberries were picked in the marshes or swamps where they grew wild. It wasn’t until 1816 that farmers in Massachusetts began cultivating them after discovering that adding sand to the soil improved the yield. But the harvest involved arduous stoop labor of picking by hand in soggy conditions.
Fun fact No. 2 about cranberries: They float.
Or at least the fresh ones do, before they are turned into juice, dried into Craisins or processed into sauce or jelly. If you cut one open, you can see the small air pockets inside.
That buoyancy is a key to harvesting a crop that is otherwise difficult to get from the field to the table. Even so, cranberry harvesting is labor intensive, which is just one of the challenges of growing one of America’s oldest native crops.
They are also to subject to disease, insects, rot, and being trampled by elk and eaten by deer. Lately as a commodity they have seen fluctuations in consumer demand and erratic prices because of a glut of cranberries from Canada.
Cranberries are part of the same family of plants that includes heather, which they resemble at certain times of the year. They grow naturally in marshy or swampy areas on low vines. According to lore, German farmers thought the curving flowers on the vines looked like cranes, so they called them “craneberries.” Or they came up with the name because cranes ate the berries. Or perhaps it was English or Dutch farmers – accounts vary.
Eventually, the first “e” was dropped.
By the mid-1800s, they were a major crop in New England and other parts of the northeastern United States. In the 1870s, a Massachusetts visitor to the southwest corner of Washington Territory noticed the region also had wild cranberries growing in land very similar to conditions back home, according to the history prepared by the state Cranberry Museum in Long Beach.
Land was cheap in the territory. For as little as $1 an acre, a syndicate bought up 1,600 acres and planted cranberry bogs on the long skinny peninsula that stretches up from Cape Disappointment to separate the Pacific Ocean from Willapa Bay.
Washington’s cranberry industry grew, but not without its problems. The plants imported from the East had new pests. Washington was a continent’s width away from the main population centers where demand for the berries was highest. Enterprising growers tried different ways to pull berries from the vines, which included large wooden scoops with long spikes wielded by pickers.
A boom in the 1910s was followed by a bust in the 1920s that caused most Washington farmers to abandon the crop. To help the beleaguered industry, the Agriculture School at Washington State College sent a young undergraduate to Long Beach to look for ways to improve the harvest.
After J.D. Crowley graduated, he returned to Long Beach to set up the college’s Cranberry Research Station, where for 30 years he worked on ways to beat pests, frost and other local problems. One change many peninsula farmers made was to switch to a wet harvest, flooding the bogs where the vines grow when the berries have ripened to a marketable red, then driving through the water with small tractors pulling or pushing rotary beaters that churn the water like the paddle wheel on a Mississippi River boat.
Knocked off the vines by the paddle blades, the berries float to the top of the water. Wet harvest is used for cranberries that are turned into dried fruit like Craisins, juice and canned jelly, but not for fresh ones sold in the supermarket produce section. Those are picked by small combines not much bigger than a lawnmower.
Fun fact no. 3 about cranberries: Washington is the fifth-largest state for production. But it only grows about 2 percent of the total crop.
Malcolm McPhail has been in agriculture all his life, but not always in cranberries.
Raised on a homestead cattle ranch that grew some grains, he was an area agronomist with a doctorate in soils and plant nutrition in Western Washington when he and wife Ardell “got enamored” with the idea of having their own farm. They considered vegetable farming in the Chehalis area where they lived but didn’t like the fact those farmers depended on processors for the harvesting. They looked at cranberry farming.
“You can do almost all of the stuff yourself,” he said. “Everybody does their own delivery.”
The berries are trucked in large wooden bins to a nearby holding facility where they are tested for color, firmness and rot. That facility sends larger truckloads up to the Ocean Spray processing plant in Markham, Washington, near Aberdeen.
The McPhails bought their first farm in 1981, bought a neighbor’s farm the next year and slowly added to their holdings over the next 35 years. CranMac Farms, which Malcolm and Ardell own, has 51 acres, their son Steven farms 23 and they jointly own another 48 acres.
The family grows about 15 percent of Washington’s cranberries.
“We renovate something every year,” McPhail said. They replace bogs of older vines with new varieties developed at Rutgers University in New Jersey or in Wisconsin, which grows about half the U.S. crop, and, like Massachusetts, has adopted the cranberry as its state fruit.
A cranberry plant can withstand cold winters and hot summers, and will produce berries for up to a century. But newly planted vines aren’t ready for harvest for three to four years
While there are some bogs with the original “MacFarland” variety in the Long Beach area, the newer hybrids can produce three or four times as many berries. The McPhails have several varieties that mature at slightly different rates, which allows them to stagger the harvest.
The new higher yielding hybrids, coupled with growth in Quebec that went from about 85 acres in 1981 to 9,500 acres now, means supply is growing faster than demand.
“We’re in an oversupply situation,” McPhail said.
This year the McPhails’ harvest of 15,000 barrels – a barrel is 100 pounds – was down from 22,400 barrels in 2016. But cranberry yields across the state were down, possibly because of a long, wet spring, he said. Some of the plants also had worm damage.
Some of the new varieties the McPhails have planted had good color, which can qualify for a bonus from the processor, but not high yields. Another variety, dubbed “Pilgrim,” didn’t color up until mid October, and harvest didn’t finish until the first week of November, about two weeks later than usual.
“It was mysterious,” he said of the lower yields and delayed coloring of the berries.
Prices are also down, ranging between $38 and $42 per barrel, compared to $45 or more last year.
Fun fact No. 4 about cranberries: A generation ago, most of the crop was processed into juice, sauces and jelly. Now the majority of the crop is processed into dried fruit.
“There’s only so many things you can do with cranberries,” said Kim Patten, WSU extension specialist with the Pacific Northwest Cranberry Research Center in Long Beach.
As the market evolved, new varieties of cranberries were developed to meet new demands.
In the early 1900s, most cranberries were sold fresh and turned into jellies or jams by consumers, said Nicholi Vorsa, director of the Philip Marucci Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension Center at Rutgers University.
By the 1950s, Ocean Spray and other companies were marketing canned jellies and sauces and the crop shifted to processed food, mainly consumed at Thanksgiving when a standard feature of many holiday dinners swooshed out of a can in a perfect cylinder, was sliced and put on a plate. Because of that, the bulk of sales for cranberry products peaked in November and December.
For jellies, the amount of pectin in the berry was important and varieties were developed with higher amounts of that chemical. Pectin drops as the fruit remains on the vine, so cranberries were harvested when pectin was at its peak.
By the late 1950s, Ocean Spray, which is a cooperative of farmers, was marketing cranberry juice “cocktail,” mixing the tart juice from the berries with sugar or other fruit juices such as apple or grape to provide more natural sweeteners. The amount of pectin didn’t matter.
Demand increased for cranberries as a breakfast substitute for orange or apple juice, as well as a colorful mixer for bar drinks. So did supply.
Ocean Spray then began marketing dried sweetened cranberries the company originally developed during World War II as a food source for overseas troops. It brought them back in the 1990s through a patented process that reduced the nickel-size berries to the size of a raisin, producing Craisins while collecting the concentrated juice.
“Craisins pulled the industry out of a glut in 2000,” Patten said. “Now it’s saturated again.”
About a fifth of all cranberries produced in the United States are still consumed the week of Thanksgiving but the demand for traditional sauce products has dropped to the point that earlier this year Ocean Spray closed its sauce production line at Markham to concentrate on Craisins.
Fun fact No. 5 about cranberries: Not all of them are cranberry red when they’re ripe. Some of the berries on vines farthest from the sun are white.
When the main demand for processed cranberries was primarily for juice blends, the color of the berries wasn’t a main concern because everything was being mixed together. When the demand shifted to the fruit being dried and sweetened, color became important, Vorsa said.
New hybrids were developed that increased the yield and created a more uniform color for the ripe cranberries. That homogenous color that processors desire is only available during a certain window of the berry’s development. Harvest too soon and the color is too light, too late and it can be close to black.
But harvesting a bog isn’t like picking strawberries or huckleberries, where it’s possible to pick the ones that are ripe today and come back later for the ones that need a bit more time. After the bogs are flooded and the vines beaten, all the berries come off and get harvested, then the bog is drained. Containers full of berries are graded for several factors, including color, which determines the price.
The color is graded on a point system, with bonuses of up to $2.50 per barrel as it reaches the desired red. Fruit that is too dark or too light doesn’t get the bonus.
New hybrids developed primarily in New Jersey and Wisconsin can double, triple or even quadruple the number of berries per plant, and produce larger, plumper fruit the drying process wants, Vorsa said. But replacing older vines with the new hybrids means a bog won’t be productive for three or four years.
Fun fact No. 6 about cranberries: They grow wild in many places around the world, including in Siberia, but American farmers have been the main source of commercially grown cranberries for two centuries.
American farmers were the first to cultivate cranberries 201 years ago, and for most of that time had the market mostly to themselves. In the last 30 years, however, they’ve faced increasing Canadian competition, particularly from Quebec, which before 1984 had only one commercial grower and in 1992 had only 264 acres among three growers.
Last year, it had 9,500 acres of cranberries, second only to Wisconsin in total production. By comparison, Washington has about 1,600 acres, which has been fairly consistent for more than a decade.
The growth in Quebec is a result of several factors, Vorsa said. When Ocean Spray introduced the Craisin, the demand for cranberries went up and the price followed. The government of Quebec offered subsidies for its farmers to develop cranberries, and those new farms planted the new, higher yielding varieties. Canada also allows more development than most states in wetlands, which are the natural habitat of cranberries.
Prices peaked in the 1990s, dropped in 1999, and have been up and down since then. American cranberry marketing associations are trying to increase demand in foreign countries like China, but at the same time other countries like Belarus, Azerbaijan, Chile and Argentina are starting to grow them.
Final fun fact about cranberries: They aren’t really berries at all. Technically, they’re a class of fruit described as epigynous because of the way the fruit and flowers grow. They are distantly related to blueberries … which also are an epigynous fruit.
Lead photo credit: Guillermina Hernandez pulls a floating boom around millions of cranberries in a bog at McPhail Family Farms on Oct. 5, 2017 near Ilwaco, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)