Tiny cranberry gets big attention this time of year

John L. Russell
Special to the Detroit News

Cheboygan — The harvest has begun for what might be one of Michigan’s smallest agricultural crops.

Cranberries are being collected from their water-flooded beds at the Michigan Cranberry Co., where up to 25 employees don waders and place booms around the floating fruit to be suctioned into containers for processing.

Andrew Dominowski, left, and Chad Hatt use a boom to collect cranberries Friday, Oct 9, 2015 at the Michigan Cranberry Company near Cheboygan Michigan. The company harvests cranberries in an area over 230 acres, which is the largest cranberry farm in Michigan, producing more than three million pounds each year.

“We have 45 beds we harvest,” said Sharon Huggett during a recent tour of the cranberry farm. “We sell the cranberries wholesale and up to 67 acres of our 230 acres are sold to Ocean Spray.”

The Huggett farm is the largest of only a handful of cranberry growers in the state. The DeGrandchamp Farms near South Haven produce about 40 acres. The remainder of the crop comes from smaller farms. Harvesting continues until mid-November.

Wisconsin leads the country with 18,000 acres cultivated, about 60 percent of the nation’s supply. Other top states are Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

The abundance of cranberries along the country’s eastern seaboard provided Native Americans a food source, medicine and dye. Its abundance and importance in the 1500s were reasons it is believed the fruit was eaten at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Wally and Sharon Huggett bought their property — an abandoned peat mining operation — in 1991, planted the first beds and began production seven years later.

“The land is ideal for growing cranberries, the soil has a low pH and there is plenty of water for our closed system,” Huggett said.

The requirements for the production of cranberries is specific — the plants need sandy or peaty soil, abundant water and winter dormancy periods of cold. The vines are low-growing perennials, six feet in length.

The beds are highly prepared and leveled with dikes surrounding them. When the fall weather produces bright red color on the berries, the beds are flooded to about two feet deep for harvest a few at a time, floating the berries to the surface.

Tractors with booms stir the water, knocking the berries off the vines. A crew corrals them into a suction device and the berries are loaded onto trucks headed for the onsite processing facility. Some are packaged for immediate sales and some are stored for the future.

Andrew Dominowski pulls cranberries toward a suction pump at the Michigan Cranberry Co. near Cheboygan.

In December when ice will form, all 45 beds, ranging from 150 feet across to five acres, are flooded. Once the ice is thick, the water is drained out, leaving an icy cap that protects the fragile vines from freezing. Buds for next year’s berries are already on the vines, so protection from severe winter weather is paramount.

“Our crop over the past two years has been down,” Huggett said. “We’ve had extreme cold and lots of snow.” This harvest will be over 3 million pounds, but some years have been as high as 6 million pounds.

In 2011, the to U.S. production was 750 million pounds.

According to Erik Johnson of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the cost of putting in an acre of cranberries usually deters new growers from getting into the business.

“I usually get a few calls in the fall when newspapers run stories about the cranberry harvest,” he said. “After I send the people the information and tell them I am willing to look at their site, I usually never get a return call.”

John L. Russell is a freelance writer in Traverse City.

Fruit’s many uses

■Cranberries are used in sauces, jams, and flavoring.

■Dried cranberries make it into cookies and salads.

■Cranberries are also dried and strung in wreaths as decorations.

■Scientific studies have found cranberry juice is good for the urinary tract and the vitamins and minerals found in the berries are also believed to be beneficial.