CRANBERRIES – FROM THE BOG TO YOUR TABLE
by Linda Matteson-Reynolds
Blanketed amongst a sea of red, the tart, juicy and freshly-plucked cranberry floats freely to the top of the bog waiting for the harvest. The cranberry has a remarkable journey from the peat-rich bog to your turkey’s favourite side dish and is an essential part of the traditional Canadian and American holiday table.
It’s cranberry season at Echo Valley Farms, a 387-acre parcel of land nestled between the Beaufort mountain range, Mount Arrowsmith and the Strait of Georgia.
The Walsh family has been well known to many Vancouver Islanders as outstanding producers of potatoes for the past three generations. In the 1980’s, John and Susan Walsh started investigating the possibility of expanding their 150-acre potato farm to accommodate cranberry farming.
“After some serious flooding and crop disasters we decided that continued expansion of our land, based mostly of virgin peat bog, was too much of a financial risk,” states John.
So began the process of research and consulting to see if cranberries would be best suited for the land. “It was a long and painful but rewarding learning curve to cultivate this native North American plant and we now feel, after 20 years of experience, that we will never really be able to control it,” admits John.
THE CRANBERRY’S BEGINNINGS
Cranberries are a unique little Vitamin C-packed fruit. They can grow and survive only under a very special combination of factors. These factors include acid-peat soil, an adequate fresh water supply, and a growing season that extends from April to November.
Cranberries grow on low-lying vines in beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These beds are commonly known as bogs or marshes. Commercial cranberry bogs, such as Echo Valley Farms, use a system of wetlands, uplands, ditches, ponds and other water bodies that provide a natural habitat for a variety of plant and animal life.
“We started with eight acres and after a few years decided that we would expand again and added another 10, which we lost to the ‘cranberry girdler moth’, a pest which destroys the roots of the plants by girdling the outer layer of the plant’s bark,” explains John.
The Walshes were challenged to either give up or keep going, as the cost of planting an acre of cranberries, excluding the land cost, is approximately $20,000, by the time you get a yielding crop. From planting to market takes about four to five years.
“There have been many round-table family conversations about how much sense it makes to carry on and even now that we have 40-acres planted and approximately 34-acres producing, we are still having those conversations,” admits John.
THE GROWING PROCESS
In the spring, the first major challenge is frost on the buds. The damage can be done as early as March as the plants begin to wake up from their winter slumber. To help ward off any possible damage, the crop is protected by a sprinkler irrigation system that ices over the buds providing an insulated zone. For John and Susan, this is a dusk-till-dawn job to ensure that pumps and sprinklers are running and if a problem occurs, there is little time for repair.
“We once had a frost in June when flowers were about to open and we lost our whole crop in approximately five minutes,” claims John.
Pollination of the cranberry fields is critical and beehives are rented from The Flying Dutchman in Nanaimo. Strong hives of 60,000 or more bees are required at a rate of two hives per acre. Once pollination is complete, the hives are removed from the perimeter of the bog.
Every autumn, cranberries reach their peak colour and flavour and are ready for harvesting. In B.C. this usually occurs from late October into November.
To “wet harvest” the crop, the cranberry bog is flooded with up to 18 inches of water the night before the berries are to be harvested. Cranberries are hollow on the inside so that’s what makes them float to the surface of the bog. Harvesting is accomplished by the workers raking and corralling the berries into floating booms directed towards the harvester ladder at the edge of the bog.
Fresh cranberries, the ones you buy in the produce aisle of your local grocery store, are “dry harvested”. This is the best way to get the absolute freshest of berries. A mechanical picker that resembles a large lawnmower combs the berries off the vine. Although Susan still does some dry harvesting for a few select customers and personal consumption, Echo Valley Farms relies on the wet harvesting technique as their berries go directly to processing plants for juicing and drying.
Although the farming lifestyle has its benefits, the inherent unpredictability and hard work associated with it makes it look less unattractive to some.
“Convincing the next generation that farming is a way of life and that it is a choice of sacrifice is a tough sell, and we have one of our four children that seems to be on the path of the torch carrying,” states John. The Walsh’s second oldest, Zachary, has now joined the operation after attending agricultural school.
“He may be having second thoughts as this season has been a weather disaster for the potato part of our operation which is his specified interest. There are many different challenges facing the farming industry and you have to be sharp to survive.”
Echo Valley Farms is committed to operating their business while minimizing the environmental impact. They manage their farm in a way that enhances the natural resources while promoting the production of high-quality crops.
A long-time partnership between the farm and Ducks Unlimited Canada involves water control structures that flood the land in the winter creating a wetland area for waterfowl, while mitigating soil erosion at the farm. In this way, the Walshes nourish the community, wildlife and the environment.
“We are stewards of the land, this is our future too,” states John.
For more information visit www.echovalleyfarms.ca.