They may be small, but they can play an instrumental part in maintaining your health: There’s a lot more to cranberries than meets the eye. To bring the benefits of this red “power fruit” to as many people as possible, Bayer supports cranberry farmers in their work because growing this unique fruit is a demanding task.
Of course, Amy Howell ate lots of them on Thanksgiving Day. And not only on that particular holiday. Her favorite snack is part of practically every meal—in the morning, she cooks them with her oatmeal; at lunchtime, she will roast some and eat them with rice and thyme; and in the evening, she enjoys a fruity cocktail with cranberry juice.
And not without good reason: “Cranberries are tasty, and are full of disease-fighting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds,” she says. “Far more, in fact, than most other fruits and vegetables. Besides, they are also an excellent source of vitamins C and E, and fiber.”
Cranberries are tasty, and they are also full of disease-fighting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Amy should know: She has studied cranberries and their medicinal properties for 22 years. She is an Associate Research Scientist at the Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Cranberries offer benefits to those who want to do something good for their health. “Since the early 1900s, we have known that cranberries help maintain urinary tract health,” says Amy. “Here in our lab, we isolated the active compounds in the berry that prevent E. coli bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall. If you keep the bacteria from adhering, you can prevent infection.”
Because the berries are naturally acidic and very low in sugar, the dried fruit snacks, juices and sauces are all prepared with sugar or non-nutritive sweeteners to improve the taste. “When choosing a cranberry juice, be sure that ‘cranberry’ is the first ingredient listed,” says Amy. “Some juices are sweetened with apple or grape juice, but that dilutes the healthy cranberry juice.”
One glass of cranberry juice, 1.5 ounces of dried fruit or a half-cup of cranberry sauce a day is already enough to enjoy the health benefits of this little red fruit. Capsules of dried cranberry juice extract also contain the valuable active ingredients. “They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but a handful of cranberries will also do the trick,” says Amy.
Despite the health benefits of cranberries, the overall crop is still small and only a few farmers produce them; growing the plants and harvesting the berries is demanding work. One of the cranberry farmers passing on their knowledge from generation to generation is Bill Cutts of the Cutts Brothers farm in New Jersey. “I was picking berries on my family’s farm when I was five years old,” Bill says. Now an energetic grandfather, he and his family still work the same land, and Bill’s two sons work with him today.
different species of fungi can infect the cranberries.
Cranberry vines are long-lived, some producing fruit for over 100 years. They are cultivated on dry land, not in water as is commonly thought. “People think that because they have seen pictures of the harvest,” Bill explains. “In the early 1960s, someone realized that because cranberries float, we could flood the fields and dislodge the berries so they pop to the surface to be gathered.”
On the Cutts Brothers farm, Bill, Ernie and Bill’s son Shawn run the day-to-day operations. Other local kin work part-time. During the four-week harvest, relatives arrive from other states and everyone pitches in. Bill’s farm is about an hour from Philadelphia, in the Pine Barrens area of New Jersey, which has the right conditions for the crop: sandy, acidic soil; abundant fresh water; and a chilly winter for dormancy.
Frost during the growing season is the biggest problem, because it can damage the vines and fruit, although modern technology helps. “We have remote sensors in use that measure the temperature in the fields and send the data to my iPad,” Bill says. “If it gets close to freezing, alarms go off and I have to get out of bed to turn on sprinklers that raise the bog temperature.”
Harvesting the Fruit
Cranberries used to be picked by hand, and later by using hand-held and then mechanical cranberry rakes. The bags of fresh cranberries that appear in grocery stores at this time of year have been dry-harvested like this.
But wet-harvesting is faster and more efficient. When the fruit reaches peak color and flavor, the bogs are flooded the night before the harvest. If water levels get too high, the dams between the bogs are in danger of being washed away. So modern farmers work with smart phones; sensors monitor the water level and send a warning as soon as there’s a problem.
Machines called “beaters” loosen the berries from the vines in the watery bogs. Then tractors set out a boom—similar to that used for containing oil spills—to corral the berries. Water and fruit are sucked up to equipment that cleans the berries and separates the leaves and vines. The water is filtered and goes back into the bog.
The leaves and vines are used by local blueberry farmers for mulch. And the berries are poured into a semi-trailer and trucked to a processing plant down the road. There, the fruit is inspected, cleaned, frozen, and shipped out to be turned into dried fruit snacks, a variety of juices and of course, cranberry sauce.
The growing season starts in April; the harvest runs from late September to early November. For winter, the bogs are flooded to protect the vines from severe cold. Every few years, a thin layer of sand is added to encourage the growth of new roots, which makes it easier for the plant to get nutrients and water.
Geese and swans are a big problem during the winter flood. They dig up the bog to find grass to feed on; to avoid this, Bill crisscrosses his bogs every winter with 40 miles of string to keep the birds from landing.
Aside from frost, Bill has the same problems as most farmers: “We’re battling bugs, fungus and other things that attack the plants and fruit.” So cranberry farmers were pleased to start using Bayer’s crop protection product Proline® last year. “Fungicides make a big difference in our yield. We’re very happy with the results we get from Proline®,” says Bill. For the next generation, it will make it a little bit easier to be a cranberry farmer.
When asked how she feels about having married into a cranberry family, Bill’s daughter-in-law, Autumn, replies, “When I started dating Bill’s son, he sent me a letter listing the top ten reasons I should consider going out with him. One was that he is a cranberry farmer, and they are pretty rare!”
Cranberries and their farmers—rare and unique indeed.