A Day in the Life of the Cranberry Harvest

Food Features Cranberries
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A Day in the Life of the Cranberry Harvest

Eastern Massachusetts belongs to the cranberry. Aside from growing 12 percent of the world’s cranberries, the region is home to some of Ocean Spray’s oldest farming families and witnessed the first cranberry cultivation.

And in fall, Eastern Massachusetts turns red.

In October, Ocean Spray invited me and a group of journalists to Wareham to slide into a pair of waders and witness the cranberry harvesting process, and for three days, cranberries consumed our lives. We ate enough cranberries for a lifetime of Thanksgivings, drank cranberry cocktails in the bog wearing waders and met families who dedicate their lives to cranberries each generation.

The serene environment in Ocean Spray commercials is far more than a marketing gimmick — it’s a longstanding tradition that protects the cranberry plant and streamlines the harvesting process. Glaciers carved the bogs that naturally housed cranberries more than 11,000 years ago, and the first commercial bogs were crafted 200 years ago. Cranberry bogs have two purposes: in winter, the water keeps the plants warm; during the harvest, the bogs are flooded, helping the buoyant berries float to the surface.

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We met Ben and Cass Gilmore, descendants of one of the original families in the Ocean Spray Cooperative, at the family bog in Carver early on a Friday. Bog harvesting starts in the morning, while the previous night’s mist still clings to the water. The harvesting team slips into waders, a waterproof overalls-and-boots set, and descends into the bog. They corral floating cranberries into a loop and push them into a vacuum leading to a sorting and cleaning station. From there, the berries fall into a truck bed, where they’ll take their first road trip.

Once the morning’s harvest departs, we shed our waders, sticky with sweat, and the crew directs a team of water reels through the flood. They’re like marine lawnmowers, pulling berries from the vines with little effort. The air chambers inside the berries help them float to the top, and a floating red trail forms behind the reel. Red is a good sign — it means the berries are flourishing. Today isn’t the day they’ll become juice, but they’re ripe enough to be eligible.

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While bogs are crucial to the harvesting process, drenching cranberries isn’t the only way to harvest them. If you’re drinking juice, chances are those cranberries were harvested in a bog. Dry harvesting is gentler on the fruit, which is either sold whole or dried out to produce Craisins. Younger, white cranberries are also harvested dry; as evidenced by the water reelers, the berries only float when they’re red — and ripe.

For the berries we met earlier, the penultimate stop is the Wonka-esque South Carver receiving station, which handles 12 percent of Ocean Spray’s fruit. Berries are driven in from around the state. Lifters tilt semi-trucks and dump their cargo, which is again washed and sifted. Ripe cranberries bounce; the bad berries move to a separate chamber and will eventually reunite with vine leaves as compost. The cranberries gleam garnet in the sunlight on their final display before they’re pressed into juice, gems in metal making a final promenade.

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We don’t follow the cranberries to Middleboro, where they’ll be processed and stride a step closer to juice. Instead, the cranberry’s tart legacy follows us: I find myself spitting out a factoid weekly, and every time I go to Fresh Market I complain about their mini “bog’s” inaccuracy. Thanksgiving day is steadily the cranberry’s triumph: gelatinous or pan-cooked, they’re likely the lone splotch of vibrance on your holiday plate.

The shrubs we stepped over now incubate underwater, waiting for next year’s batch to blossom. The berries they produce will have different fates: one will end up mixed with vodka in a plastic cup; one will decorate a breakfast’s bowl of granola; one will treat an infection or help combat a heart’s disease. Until then, they sleep.

Sarra Sedghi is Paste Food’s Assistant Editor. She can usually be found arguing about mayonnaise on Twitter.