Cranberry: Sweet or Sinister?

Feature Stories Fall 2014 Issue

Cranberry: Sweet or Sinister?

By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 2

The Dark Side of Berryland

When nothing more than flesh and skin, the wild American Cranberry is a botanical treat awaiting any who wander through northern forests and wetlands when berries are ripe for the picking. But as consumers and producers, we’ve collectively and drastically changed how this native fruit grows.

Commercial fruit production can be a good, honest way to make a living. But when fully exposed, the commercial cranberry industry was built on the notion that growing cranberries without degrading natural wetlands and inputting manufactured fertilizers and chemical pesticides is impossible. Impossible. Thankfully a handful of passionate growers are turning heads with new ideas about how to grow with no guilt and no shame, producing a fruit we can all be proud to eat and claim as our own.

Before I give you the warm and fuzzies, one should know how commercial cranberries are typically grown. It is an industry that has faced more than its fair share of production and price obstacles. Producing commercial cranberries is no easy task, and no one, with the exception of maybe Ocean Spray, is making a windfall.

If you have never stood in or close to a cranberry bog, a field trip to one of the many commercial bogs that dot Wisconsin’s sandy central and northern landscape should be on your to-do list. To my surprise, cranberries do not grow in water but in sandy, acidic soil in locations with plentiful access to fresh water. The plant itself is a low-growing, woody, perennial vine—meaning it comes back every year. In fact, most established cranberry marshes are decades old.

The plant produces horizontal stems, or stolons, that extend up to six feet long, and short vertical branches, or uprights, that can grow up to eight inches in height. Fruiting uprights can produce as many as seven fruits, and pollination largely depends upon honeybees.

Once mature, each cranberry contains a tiny pocket of air, which aids in harvesting. Machine-made commercial bogs are flooded at peak ripeness, when the fruit easily detaches from the vine or is “beaten” from the vine with specialized equipment. The berries float to the surface where they are corralled and either hand- or machine-harvested. The fruit is then transported by truck to a sorting, packaging and distributing facility to be prepared for fresh sale or processed into frozen berries, juice, sauce, powder, or sweetened and dried.

A second, less common harvesting method is a dry harvest, where the fruit is “combed” from the vine using specialized picking equipment, which requires no water.

This all seems perfectly acceptable. Yet problems arise in the marshy conditions where cranberries thrive. The same environment that produces juicy red fruit attracts diverse issues: plant destroying insects like the dreaded black-headed fireworm and fruit worm, fungal diseases, rot, and opportunistic, water loving plants considered noxious weeds by any cranberry producer.

Cranberry producers are not only dependent upon water for harvesting purposes, but efforts to keep pests at bay require forced springtime floods followed by a pre-bloom re-flood, which does a worthy job of drowning unwanted insect populations. Marshes are also flooded in the winter to form a protective ice shell around the plants to prevent winter kill.

Traditionally, cranberry marshes have been developed in wetland ecosystems, and according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, because wetlands are protected by local, state and federal regulations, permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must be acquired first.

Wisconsin’s Cranberry Clean Water Coalition, a now defunct water quality and wetland advocacy group originally consisting of 16 member organizations, maintained that from the beginning of the state’s cranberry production up to the year 2000, approximately 15,000 acres of wetland had been converted to cranberry production and 23,000 acres of reservoirs were constructed (mostly in wetlands) to provide water for Wisconsin cranberry beds. Between 1980 and 2000 alone, approximately 5,200 acres of wetland had been lost for direct conversion to cranberry beds, and additional wetland acreage had been altered for the construction of reservoirs, ditches and dikes to hold and circulate large volumes of water for the cranberry fields.

Growing cranberries requires a lot of water, and subsequently, impacts to water quality and quantity arise. Weed and insect issues plague all cranberry marshes, and as a result, chemical herbicides, fungicides and pesticides as well as manufactured fertilizers have become the norm for commercial cranberry production. According to a Macalester College study, for “maximum productivity, cranberry bogs must be virtually free of any species of flora or fauna that may inhabit a bog. Otherwise, up to eighty percent of productivity could be sacrificed. To avoid this, farmers run a rigid schedule of chemical spraying” (Macalester College).

The study goes on to warn that “even under the watchful eye of the WDNR, the Wisconsin Integrated Pest Management Program, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the EPA, and others, chemical use has raised concerns because Wisconsin studies have repeatedly published frightening results. For instance, one [study] found elevated concentrations of lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and other toxic metals in cranberry bog discharges, and there are approximately 22 pesticides commonly used on cranberries, including napropromide, norflurazon, dichlovenil, 2,4-D, carbaryl, diazinon, chlorpyrifos, and azinphos-methyl." Yikes.

Alone, the chemical pesticide diazinon has been proven by the EPA to cause a “widespread and continuous hazard” to birds, especially waterfowl like geese and ducks. Bird kills have been reported nationwide following diazinon applications. Additionally, diazinon is highly toxic to fish and the cranberry’s primary pollinator—bees. It has been known to contaminate ground water supplies and can take more than six months to degrade to half of its original concentration in fresh water (USDA Cooperative Extension - University of Oregon).

Further, in 2006 the USDA Pesticide Data Program found “13 pesticide residues on tested cranberries, including three known carcinogens, six hormone disrupters, five neurotoxins, one developmental or reproductive toxin and six honeybee toxins” (USDA Pesticide Data Program; Pesticide Action Network).

It’s not only humans who are eating these chemical residues; so are birds, amphibians and other living creatures that inhabit or migrate through Wisconsin’s wetlands. Bioaccumulation of these toxins in the soil as well as in the wild game we eat should be a real concern. These chemicals are also discharged into our waterways and cycled into our underground drinking water sources.

With considerable political influence and campaign contributions, Wisconsin’s cranberry industry has received special treatment and exemptions from state environmental laws. For example, the Wisconsin legislature elevated the private rights of cranberry growers over public rights in water related matters as evidenced by Section 94.26 of Wisconsin Statutes. Priority treatment dates back to 1867 with the passage of the “Old Cranberry Law,” which allowed cranberry growers to convert wetlands, alter trout streams and lakes and avoid state dam safety inspections. Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson (1987-2001) said wetland legislation that would harm cranberry growers’ ability to use and enhance wetlands wouldn’t get the tip of his pen. “You’ve got a friend in the governor’s office who carries a big red pen,” Thompson said on January 15, 1992, at the Wisconsin Cranberry Association’s winter meeting (Wisconsin Stewardship Network).

In recent years, Wisconsin’s cranberry growers have made strides toward creating a more sustainable industry, as evidenced by a 2009 survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Horticulture Department (Johnson). The survey included a total of 114 cranberry growers, representing 152 cranberry marshes or 13,274 acres of cranberries. Results document that more than half of growers have created a Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Nutrient Management Plan to guide the application of fertilizers in hopes of preventing over-applications. Further, 88 percent of growers use alternative practices in addition to pesticides to manage pests, and 98 percent of growers calibrate fertilizer and pesticide application equipment.

Surveys like this show the state’s industry is making strides in the right direction. But is it enough? All Wisconsin farmers are required by the state to have a Nutrient Management Plan in place that meets the NRCS Nutrient Management Conservation Practice Standard. The caveat, according to Sara Walling, chief of nutrient management and water quality for DATCP, is that the nutrient management regulation is only enforceable and regulated when there are cost-sharing funds available to assist with the design and implementation of a plan. DATCP receives roughly $2 million per year to distribute to county Land and Water Conservation Departments which, in turn, work with local farmers. Walling says these funds are competitive and by no means cover all 78,000 farmers in the state. It seems short-sighted to create legislation and regulatory policy that is only enforceable when the Political Will deems the program worthy of adequate funding. Walling did, however, commend the Wisconsin Cranberry Growers Association for taking a proactive approach to promoting the importance of nutrient management.

Chemical inputs are expensive, and by and large, cranberry growers are good stewards of the land, minimizing input overages by hiring professional pest management consultants, or “scouts,” to inspect for insects, plant disease and weeds. According to the survey, 97 percent of cranberry growers use pest thresholds when making decisions about spraying. But pest management plans are not required, and water quality and the overall health of these man-made ecosystems—and the natural ecosystems they impact—remains a real and present concern.

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