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Into the Cranberry Bog

You’ve seen an Ocean Spray commercial, haven’t you? You know the ones, with two farmers standing in water surrounded by floating cranberries. After seeing the commercials, I thought cranberry farmers spent all their time wearing chest waders and standing in water.

Boy, was I wrong.

I recently attended the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (better known as FNCE), a meeting of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I expected to learn about a variety of nutritional topics. What I did not expect to learn about was cranberry farming.

Before I even made it to the expo, where over 380 companies had set up booths, I heard about the bog. “Have you been to the bog yet?” someone asked me. I shook my head thinking I must have heard wrong. We were in the convention center in Chicago. There aren’t bogs in the city. Thanks to Ocean Spray, there was one, at least for a few days.

Cranberry Bog View

In the back of the expo hall was the company’s traveling bog. This bog has been to Times Square, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Emmy awards. Approximately 1,500 pounds of ripe cranberries floating in water, surrounded by trays of cranberry plants with juvenile berries, were waiting. Baskets of socks, a line of knee boots, and hip waders were available for those who really wanted to get up close and personal with the cranberries. 

Cranberry Boots

The best part, at least in my opinion, was having Wisconsin farmer Steven Bartling from Bartlings Manitowish Cranberry Company standing by in the bog to answer questions and take photos with attendees. 

Cranberry Farmer 2

Having only seen a bog on TV, I jumped at the chance to talk to a cranberry farmer and find out more about how the fruit is raised and harvested. Here are six things I learned in the bog.

  1.  The name may change.

Depending on where the farm is, it’s called a bog (Massachusetts), marsh (Wisconsin), or field (Canada). Wisconsin, which I think of as the dairy state, actually grows 60% of the U.S. cranberry crop.

      2. Ocean Spray is a grower-owned cooperative.

The company was formed by three farmers in 1930. I was stunned to realize over 700 farmers own the company.  As Steven put it to me, “We can focus on farming. They can focus on marketing.”  Everyone working the show promoted the fact that family farms are raising the cranberries if you looked at the back of their T-shirts. If they’d had those shirts for sale, I would have bought one. I love agriculture shirts, especially ones that promote family.

Cranberry Family Farms

       3.  Cranberries grow on a vine.

The small plants look more like a dwarf shrub than a vine to me, but I could see where the plants were sending out runners, similar to strawberry plants. The new growth that emerged this past July will produce the berries that are harvested next fall – 16 months later.

Cranberry Plant

       4.  They are a perennial plant that goes dormant in the winter. 

The plant itself isn’t harvested, just the berries. Steven is the fourth generation in his family to farm and told me some of the plants they harvested fruit from were planted by his great-grandfather. Many of the cranberry farmers are 10-generation businesses. How many companies can claim they have been in the same family for four, much less 10, generations?

      5.  Cranberries only float in water during harvest. 

Except for the rain Mother Nature provides, the bog is dry except during harvest. The night before harvest, the bog is flooded. A machine resembling an egg beater churns up the water, loosening the berries from the vine. After floating to the surface, berries are corraled and loaded onto trucks. The water is drained into retention ponds and reused the next year. I found this video by Ocean Spray, which gives a great overview of cranberry harvest.

Cranberry floating

      6.  Not many people asked questions. 

I couldn’t to talk with Steven about all things cranberry, and was surprised when he told me that I was one of the few people who asked him questions about the farm. Most people, he said, just wanted their picture taken with him. 

I found it hard to believe that so many people, and let me tell you the line for the bog was around the corner, didn’t take advantage of the chance to learn how food was grown from the source. Telling the story of what he loves to do is one of the reasons Steven told me he participates in the traveling bog events. After all, when you’re standing in boots in the middle of floating cranberries, you have a captive audience. 

This was definitely an experience I won’t forget and an amazing way to bring the cranberry farming experience to consumers. Many cranberry farms offer tours or the chance to work on the farm during harvest. I just might have to add cranberry harvester to my farm bucket list!

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