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How farmers connect (and bake) with cranberries

What’s Cooking in Illinois: Venture into an indoor cranberry bog to learn how farmers grow the berries and connect with consumers.

With waders and coveralls, I recently had the chance to experience a cranberry bog. We’ve all seen the Ocean Spray commercials with the farmers in the bog, but doing it yourself is an interesting experience.

And my experience? Indoors! Ocean Spray set one up inside Chicago’s McCormick Center for dietitians attending the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. It was the hit of the show.

The purpose was to connect dietitians with cranberry farmers who came to talk about farming, the benefits of cranberries and their love for the red berry.

Cranberries grow on low-lying perennial vines that can last up to 40 years. Tiny blossoms form, are pollinated and turn into a green berry. In the fall, when the berries are ready to harvest, they turn from green to red. Inside the berry are four tiny pockets that fill with air, allowing the berries to float when the plants are flooded, creating a bog. A picking machine has a spinning wheel that knocks the berries off the vine. Then they are corralled with a device called a boom and swept together so they can be harvested. A pump pulls the water off. Harvest occurs between mid-September and early November — just in time for Thanksgiving tables.

INDOOR BOG: Ocean Spray set up an indoor cranberry bog inside Chicago’s McCormick Center for dietitians attending the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. It was the hit of the show, plus I got to wear waders.

Cranberries are grown in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon, and parts of Canada and Chile.

“Last year, Wisconsin had an amazing crop,” says Alison Carr, a fourth-generation cranberry farmer from Wisconsin. “This year, we’re down a little, but you never really know until harvest.”

Her farm is part of the Ocean Spray Cooperative, which her great-great-great-grandfather’s brother helped start.

“We are here through generations caring for the land,” says Carr. “Raising cranberries is part of the fabric of who we are.”

She operates a 100-acre cranberry farm; the average farm size is 20 to 30 acres.

Cranberry connection
I’m not suggesting Illinois farmers should consider raising cranberries, but I find it interesting that cranberry farmers go all out to connect with dietitians and consumers. I personally love a fresh cranberry salad with my turkey, but it will taste even sweeter this year, having learned about the process of harvesting those cranberries (wader pictures to prove) from a real cranberry farmer.

To me, those personal connections will make agriculture strong in the future.

And just in case you’re wondering, cranberries are an amazing food, offering cancer protection due to their high amounts of antioxidants; bone health due to their high amounts of vitamin C, manganese and vitamin K; and heart health because their ruby color and phytonutrients help reduce blood pressure. In addition, they may give protection to preventing or treating urinary tract infections — that’s still being researched.

Most important, they taste great. One of my favorite ways to include them is in these Cranberry Orange Muffins.

Cranberry Orange Muffins

2 cups whole wheat flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1½ cups orange juice
¼ cup unsweetened apple sauce
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, halved

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, whisk egg, orange juice and applesauce until blended. Add to flour mixture; stir just until moistened. Fold in cranberries.

Coat muffin cups with cooking spray or use paper liners; fill three-quarters full. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool five minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack. Serve warm. Makes 12 muffins.

Fargo is a dietitian for Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill. Send recipe ideas to her at [email protected].

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