The Cranberry Harvest

There’s a certain amount of hype about cranberries these days- they’ve been touted as a kind of superfood by some, and research is ongoing into their effects on keeping cancer down. They are known to kill E. coli, fight plague and help treat urinary tract infections. Equally fascinating is the method in which cranberries are gathered.

holly laddPhoto: Holly Ladd

This process takes place mostly on the east coast of the USA and Canada- the big suppliers include New England, Quebec and Nova Scotia. As well as being famous for its autumn leaves, New England has just the right climate for growing cranberries: their summers are hot and their winters are particularly (and sometimes catastrophically) cold.

This climate allows the soil to become acidic, which results in the formation of the bogs in which the cranberry plant thrives. The bog will be deliberately flooded around September, covering the cranberry plants. Then, tractor-like harvesters trawl the bogs, pulling the berries from the vine. In smaller operations, farmers wearing chest-high waders move about the bog in increasing circles, marking the areas that have already been picked until the bog until a spiral pattern emerges.

AnnshiPhoto: Annshi

The picked berries are left to float at the surface of the water before being kept in an area of the bog called a ‘corral’, which is marked by a floating line. A pump is activated, sucking the berries into a processor. Many cultural traditions and celebrations are associated with this process in New England, where the cranberry harvest is regarded as a sign that autumn- or ‘fall’, as the locals call it, has arrived.

As is often the case however, man’s use of a natural resource does not come without a cost. In particular, issues have arisen regarding the flood water from the bog. Once harvesting has been completed, water is often returned to surrounding lakes and ponds. Locals often object that the returned water is rich in fertilizers, which promotes the over-growth of algae that destroys lake ecosystems. This process is called eutrophication, and it happens whenever an excess of nutrients enters a water system. Algea that are ordinarily a useful part of the ecosystem begin to grow until they choke all other life within the water. The respiration of algae also causes problems;fish and plants die due to the reduced oxygen levels in the water.

cmiperPhoto: Cmiper

Phosphorus is the main villain, particularly when it mixes with nitrogen from sewage, indicating that a combination of land uses are to blame. Like many pollution problems, this is one that only becomes serious when the scale of the farming is very intensive. While cranberries have been farmed on the east coast since the first Thanksgiving dinner, it is only since the introduction of large-scale intensive farming that locals have begun to complain about the condition of affected bodies of water.

Sources: 1, 2.