Ahhh, cranberries... Whether you enjoy a gooey homemade sauce or have oddly fond memories of a cylindrical mass of red gelatinous material, your Thanksgiving table just isn’t complete without these ruby red berries. And neither is the first bar 88 Acres ever made. We use local, Massachusetts-grown dried cranberries from bogs just an hour from our Bakery in both our original Seed Bar (Triple Berry Blend) and our newest flavor: Fall Edition Spiced Cranberry Orange Seed Bars and Seed’nola. Cranberries bring a tart burst to every bite and summon memories of all your favorite people gathered around a table full of way too much food. But the original New England berry takes a, shall we say, unique journey before arriving for the holiday feast.
Cranberries are native to North America and have been enjoyed by indigenous communities for over 12,000 years. While the original name for cranberries was “sasumuneash”, the modern-day cranberry was renamed “craneberry” by European settlers who thought the flower looked like the head of a Sandhill crane.
Today, the US is the world’s largest supplier of cranberries, with Wisconsin being the largest producer, followed closely by Massachusetts. There are over 14,000 acres of cranberries grown by 400 farming families in Massachusetts, where we get our cranberries. Our cranberries are grown by ninth generation cranberry farmers with nearly 500 acres of cranberry bogs, just an hour away from our Bakery in Boston. 860 million pounds of cranberries were grown in the US in 2018, a fifth of which were eaten around Thanksgiving.
The Mind-Boggling World of Cranberry Bogs
There is no other food in the world that's grown and harvested like cranberries, but despite popular belief, they don’t actually grow in water. Cranberries grow on low-lying vines with stems that reach up to six feet long. These vines are planted in beds that have been layered with gravel and clay to prevent anything from leaching into the groundwater. Farmers add sand to the bogs every few years to help the cranberries continue to grow, as well as to prevent weeds and insects from taking over. Also unlike most other crops, cranberries don’t need to be replanted every year because undamaged vines will keep growing cranberries indefinitely. In fact, some vines in Massachusetts are over 150 years old and still pop out cranberries year after year.
Anthocyanins, the compounds that give cranberries their red color, are powerful antioxidants that may be more effective than vitamin E at preventing cell damage.
Cranberry bogs are flooded every winter as a way to protect the fragile vines and buds from damage. When the vines come out of dormancy and sprout new growth in mid-March, the farmers drain the bogs until the cranberries are ripe and ready for harvest. Until then, the cranberry vines bloom with pink flowers that must be pollinated several times by bees and other native pollinators. Farmers often bring in one or two bee hives per acre of bog while the flowers are in bloom from early June to mid-July to ensure the cranberries get pollinated. Once the bees have done their work, green berries start to form along the vines. These berries turn white in August and finally turn red in the fall to indicate they’re ready for harvest.
The tannins in cranberries give them antibacterial benefits that ward off UTIs, ulcers and gum disease.
The Great Flood
Cranberries are usually harvested from late September to early November because they need the cool fall nights to ripen. Unlike most other fruits, cranberries don’t sweeten as they ripen, but instead remain pretty tart. Another odd, but very useful, characteristic of cranberries is that they have pockets of air inside of them, which is why farmers flood the bogs with water to harvest the berries and also why you’ll find the idyllic bogs with bright red cranberries floating on top in the fall.
When the bogs are flooded, the cranberries are still attached to the vines and have to be dislodged so they float to the top. This is done by unique machines called water reels, or “egg beaters”, that stir up the water to gently release the ripe berries from the vines. After the ripe cranberries have floated to the surface, wooden or plastic “booms” that somewhat resemble pool noodles are used to encircle and round up the berries. They are then lifted or pumped into trucks to be transported to a facility that sorts and cleans them. If any cranberries don’t meet market standards, our supplier either sells them as cattle feed or composts them, so nothing is wasted. More than 90% of cranberries are “wet harvested” this way, most of which are used for juice, sauce, and dried cranberries like the ones we use in our bars.
For fresh cranberries, however, farmers don’t flood their bogs at all, but instead use a harvesting method called “dry harvesting.” For this method, farmers use a machine that looks like a lawn mower to gently comb the berries off their vines and into burlap bags. The dry harvested cranberries are also sent to sorting and cleaning facilities, but the mark of a ripe berry is even more important for fresh cranberries. A good fresh cranberry is judged by its bright ruby color and its ability to bounce!
Cranberries Going Green
Like every ingredient we use, our cranberries were chosen because the farmers who grow them take what they do seriously. These local growers produce a tart and dried yet juicy cranberry that we’re proud to use in our Triple Berry Blend and Fall Edition Spiced Cranberry Orange Seed Bars and Seed’nola. In keeping with our commitment to sustainable agricultural production, we chose our cranberry supplier because they were the first cranberry farm to commit itself to Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
IPM is a practice that keeps pests at bay by encouraging natural pest control mechanisms to minimize pesticide use as a last resort option. The goal of IPM is to grow a healthy, robust crop with the least possible disruption to the ecosystem. And just like our zero food-waste bakery, our cranberry supplier doesn’t waste anything either, sending all the cranberries that don’t meet their standards to local cattle farms or to the compost pile. So go ahead and really enjoy that next seed bar -- a lot of care went into getting it to you.