What started as a way for Carrie Thomas to extend her time in Muskoka through the fall 20 years ago, turned into a lasting love of both cranberries, farming, and the family that makes cranberries happen in Ontario.
Hi! I’m Lex’s friend Carrie. Lex and I have had a few adventures together however in this particular instance, one of us wound up with a head injury limiting us from screen time. One of us also happens to be a cranberry aficionado. For this post, the role of Lex will, therefore, be played by yours truly. [Note the resemblance. lex]
My history with Cranberries goes back 20 years. What started out as working on a Cranberry farm to extend my time in Muskoka through a fall season, turned into a lasting love of both cranberries, farming, and the family that makes cranberries happen in Ontario.
Cranberry farming can be traced back to the 1800’s in Mass. Early mariners used to take barrels of cranberries on their sea voyages to prevent scurvy. In Ontario, commercial cranberry farming started around the 1930’s with George Mollard in MacTier. Sadly, the bottom fell out of the cranberry market in 1959 when the FDA banned their consumption and Mr. Mollard literally walked away from his marsh. You can read more about that in the Forbe’s article – The Great Thanksgiving Cranberry Scare of 1959 There is a song from the 50’s called the “Cranberry Blues” by Robert Wiliams and the Groovers that details the crash of the cranberry market.
As the vines only continue to grow, it’s all still there (but you have to know where to look).
The marsh that I took Alexa to belongs to the Johnston Family. Orville Johnston was bitten by the cranberry bug as he spent some summers working for Mr. Mollard. He went to McGill University for agriculture, met his wife June (who was taking Home Economics) and together, they literally carved their future family legacy out of the woods in Bala, Muskoka in 1960. June taught Home Ec at the Gravenhurst Highschool while Orville ran the farm (and also played dance halls around the north with his band!) His oldest son Murray now owns and operates the farm with his wife Wendy. Their oldest son North is also actively farming as he will one day continue this legacy.
Why Do Cranberries Grow in Water?
We’ve all seen that Ocean Spray commercial with the two men wearing hip waders, standing in water, surrounded by cranberries. Only, cranberries don’t actually grow in water.
They also don’t grow from seeds. Vine cuttings planted in a sandy, peaty soil will grow (you just have to wait 5 years for fruit). Cranberry vines are in the perennial and evergreen plant categories.
The Bees Knees
I think a cranberry provides a most excellent example of why bees are so important for our survival. Let me break a cranberry down for you: for one cranberry to be viable, it needs 20 seeds (you can count them yourself when you bite one in half). For every seed, you need a grain of pollen. For those grains of pollen, we need the bees to pollinate. Johnston’s can harvest between 300,000 to 500,000 lbs of cranberries every year. That’s a lot of help from the bees!!!
It’s In The Genus!
Blueberries are the same genus of species as cranberries so if you didn’t want to bite into a tart little cranberry, you can bite into a blueberry. Either way, both fruits are considered “super fruits” as they are so high in anti-oxidants so are a win/win for your health.
White and red cranberries are both ripe. White cranberries need a cold frosty night, or a warm, sunny day to turn from white to red.
You could do this experiment at home by throwing white cranberries into a boiling pot of water or, the freezer. Either way, they’ll turn red. Even in the white cranberries, the red pigment is always there. By treating the cranberries like grapes, the Johnston’s have created a “Georgian Bay Rose” and “White” cranberry wine in their winery. Both of these wines are made with white cranberries only however, they always have the red pigment or appear “blush”. One year, the sunshine hit a fermentation tank, heating up the juice by a couple of degrees. While it didn’t change the quality of the wine (small mercy!) this action changed the colour from blush to red.
Picking & Grinning
Cranberries can be picked using a variety of methods. Back in the day, cranberries were picked using a hand scoop. The year Orville Johnston hand scooped 100,000lbs of cranberries was the year that he decided to buy a picker.
The most common method is called the “Wet rake” method, which is why the cranberry marsh is flooded. Cranberries have 4 chambers of air in them (bite one in half!) which makes them float on the vine and therefore are easier to pick. The most common wet rake is called a Getzinger Retracto Toothpicker. It has retractable teeth on a rotating drum that scoop the cranberries off the vine where they are then dumped into a “boat” that is attached to the picker. A chain of boats are floated behind the picker and can be swapped out as you make your way down the bog. Cranberries harvested this way can be sold as fresh fruit.
Fun fact! Getzinger’s have a marsh in Wisconsin and yes, I’ve been there. There are other methods of picking cranberries. Another wet method is called the “beating method”. The beater literally beats the berries off the vines and they float around (like the commercial). Cranberries harvested using that method go directly into a cranberry product because the fruit is bruised. The dry rake method is exactly what it sounds like. Commercial marshes in Wisconsin or Mass would harvest this way. Sometimes, they even use helicopters to lift the bags of cranberries off the marsh.
Jack Frost Isn’t Just in a Story
While Alexa and I were walking down to where we could put on hip waders, she noted that there were metal pipes running down the middle of each marsh bed. Water management is an important function of cranberry growing. In the fall before and during harvest, sprinklers are run to prevent frost from damaging the crop. The radius of marsh that one sprinkler head covers during nights of frost risk can save 10,000lbs from frost damage and ultimate ruin.
Murray doesn’t get much sleep during harvest because Jack Frost actually calls his phone for every degree the temperature gets closer to the frost zone. When it’s close to frost, he has to turn on the sprinkler lines but it doesn’t end there. He has to walk those sprinkler lines throughout the night to make sure that they don’t freeze over or get clogged with any debris. It sometimes can make for a long cold night!
In the winter time, cranberries like to remain dormant, so the marshes are flooded and frozen. The best part about water management at The Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh is that they now freeze over their dykes (and they have a Cranboni!) so that we can ice skate around the marsh!! They also have snowshoes! (If I can coax Alexa into visiting the marsh with me in the wintertime, she will be wearing a helmet!)
Remember those early mariners who took barrels of cranberries with them on sea voyages I mentioned earlier? Apparently, on a particular sea voyage, a barrel of cranberries fell over. The sailors noticed that all of the ripe berries bounced down the ship steps. As this story travelled, the concept became integrated into how cranberries were processed. In fact, Johnston’s still use the Hayden Cranberry Separator for their processing!!! Some call it old, others call it tried, tested and true!
All of the ripe cranberries bounce down the wooden slats and ultimately onto the mill belt where workers hand pick anything that the Hayden missed.
From there – cranberries go in a few different directions:
- to the wholesale market
- Sold as fresh fruit
- Juice (mix a tablespoon of pure cranberry juice in with water for a refreshing alternative that is also good for your heart and urinary tract!) and
Johnston’s created Muskoka Lakes Winery 17 years ago with great success. My favourite thing about these wines is that because they aren’t grapes, they don’t contain any histamines, which means no headache the next day if you accidentally consume a bottle. (You’re welcome!) Cranberry Wine always pairs well with Christmas Turkey! (and they ship!).
Don’t be like Alexa and wait a decade(s) before going to visit a cranberry bog. In the winter you can snowshoe or ice skate then warm up with wine, or hot chocolate. They also have local artisanal cheeses for cheese plates!) In July, you can go see the blossoms and bees in action! Harvest always starts the first week of October.
You can go hike their trails, try the wine, see the harvest in action. They even have a “plunge” experience where you can wear hip waders and catch the cranberry bug yourself, just like Alexa.
Carrie Thomas is one of Alexa’s travel buddies. Silliness is guaranteed when these two get together. And stories. Or perhaps punch lines. With recent trips to Muskoka and Disneyworld, let’s see what trouble these two can get into next.
Note: some of these photos were used from Johnston’s Cranberry’s site.