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A Thanksgiving Staple, The Cranberry Is Also an Insanely Fascinating Fruit. (Trust Us.)
Free Enterprise Staff | November 23, 2015

Cranberry sauce is a classic Thanksgiving staple, with its characteristic can-shape and ridged rings. But have you ever thought about where the actual fruit comes from? We did, so we spoke with Jeff LaFleur, a cranberry farmer and owner of Mayflower Cranberries.

It only takes a few minutes of talking with LaFleur to realize there is a lot more that goes into cranberry farming than you might have realized. For starters, the cranberry is one of only three fruits native to North America that are commercially grown, according to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association. (The other two are the blueberry and the Concord grape.)

There are also more than 100 varieties of cranberries, which Native Americans ate for hundreds of years before they were first cultivated in the early 19th century. While this was all news to us, LaFleur was pretty familiar with the cranberry even before he purchased his farm seven years ago. LaFleur not only studied agriculture in college, but also represented the industry for 20 years, working in public policy in various capacities at the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association.

LaFleur’s familiarity with the industry and cranberries in general helped him with the transition to actual farming. His connections have helped him along the way, as he’s teamed with industry researchers to study and better understand the fruit. “I think one of the things that I took to heart was that I really came at farming from a different perspective,” LaFleur tells Free Enterprise.

“I turned to applied science, took information from researchers, and really tried to apply it to the farm. Whether it was dealing with nutrient management or water management with irrigation and plant physiology, I really made an effort to try to work closely with scientists.”

What, then, makes for ideal growing conditions? Well, there are only a handful of states where the cranberry industry thrives, with the largest such producers located in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. These states all share factors such as cold weather climates, plenty of fresh water, and acidic soil. That’s not to say they can’t grow elsewhere; they just aren’t commercially viable.

Ever wondered why those guys in the Ocean Spray commercials are standing in knee-deep water? As it turns out, that’s not just for TV—that’s actually how it works. Since cranberries are grown in bogs, farmers actually flood them prior to harvesting. They then rely on a machine that knocks the cranberries from their vines, allowing them to float to the surface. The cranberries are then corralled into a specific part of the bog where they’re cleaned and then transported onto trucks. These cranberries, which account for roughly 95% of all such fruit grown in Massachusetts, are used specifically for juice, sauce, and other processed cranberry products, LaFleur says.

The other 5% of cranberries are harvested in bogs that are never flooded. This method simply requires farmers to use a different machine to free the fruit from their vines. This type of cranberry is then packaged and sold as fresh fruit that you see sold in the supermarket from brands like Ocean Spray. (Ocean Spray is actually a cooperative comprising more than 700 small growers from across the U.S.) Dry harvesting produces high-quality cranberries that last longer in storage and can be frozen for up to a year. “After we’re done harvesting, we drain the water from the bog,” LaFleur explains.

“The plants go into dormancy, and we really start maintenance, cleaning irrigation ditches, maintaining irrigation systems—all of the components that go into producing and maintaining the bog. Then when it really starts to get cold—that’s usually around January 1st—we’ll flood the bogs to protect the vines from the low temperatures. The growing season gets into full gear in the spring when the ice melts.”

Even though cranberries have been cultivated for hundreds of years, we’re still learning about their intricacies, LaFleur says. “One of the areas that researchers have really been focused on recently is water use. For years, conventional wisdom said that cranberries needed one inch of water per week during the growing season. But thanks to research from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst we’re really beginning to realize that isn’t true. We’re actually seeing that there’s more of a bell curve for water needs, and, in many instances, growers tend to over-water their plants,” he says.

“One of the things we did to study this was install tensiometers—they’re basically tools that measure soil moistness, almost like mimicking the root of the plant—and they deliver a numeric number to my smartphone that tells me what the soil moisture is throughout the farm. Thanks to that technology, I can more precisely determine the water needs of the plant during the growing season, and also based on soil conditions. That’s helped us to reduce the water that we use for irrigation, improve yields, and improve food quality.”

All these cranberries make for a robust industry. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, last year the U.S. produced 8.7 million barrels of the fruit—down slightly from the year before. For LaFleur, the fruit is an integral part of his life and has long defined his career. “Cranberries are versatile, and they’re just so good for you. You can find cranberries in almost every single aisle of the supermarket today, from the fresh produce side, to cereals vegetables, and even frozen foods,” he says.

“I feel so fortunate to work in this industry. It’s such a small industry, and we’re so geographically tight together in southeastern Massachusetts that the growers really do work together closely. I was really fortunate to have a lot of local growers that were very, very helpful in those first years when I took over the farm, and that really helped me through that whole process. It’s been fun, and it’s certainly been a challenge. But I love what I do, and I don’t see that changing.”