Washington’s Cranberry Coast

Prized for their ultra-tart flavor and ultra-healthy qualities, cranberries are a little-appreciated Northwest crop that deserves its props.

Tarl Waara lives on the corner of Cranberry and Turkey roads—an uncannily appropriate intersection for a cranberry farmer. But Waara does not think the tangy, little red berries that he grows should be exclusively relegated to the holiday dinner table. Not at all.

“I’d like to see people eat cranberries year round. Every day would be nice. They’re so healthy!” Waara exclaims. Cranberries contain bacteria-blocking compounds that are known to prevent urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers, and gum disease. Plus, they are packed with powerful antioxidants that may help in the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Waara, a fourth-generation cranberry farmer who tends 30 acres, operates one of the 80 cranberry farms that reside along a stretch of Washington shore—from Westport to Grayland—known as the Cranberry Coast.

Cranberries being wet harvested

Summertime is often when tourists visit the coast, so many do not realize that the greenish low-profile bushes they see growing in the tucked away marshlands are really cranberry vines. If they were to visit in late spring, though, they would see an explosion of vivid pink flowers, while in autumn they’d find a flourish of red berries, ripe for harvesting.

The Pacific Northwest is certainly known for the quality of its berries and tree fruits, but it is not common knowledge that cranberry farming is a viable agricultural resource here. Wisconsin is home to the most cranberry farms in the United States, though many people think of Massachusetts when it comes to growing these ultra-tart berries. Yet the coastal areas of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia are home to roughly 325 cranberry farms: Washington has 120 cranberry farms, Oregon has 130, and British Columbia has 75.

Waara and all but four of his neighboring Grayland farmers tend dry bogs, meaning the fields do not ever get flooded in order to harvest the cranberries.

“We do get occasional tour buses, but people are always surprised when they don’t see berries floating in water. They say, ‘I thought that cranberries grew in water?’ It’s a misconception that all bogs are flood bogs, and the ones that are, only get flooded for a few days during harvest,” Waara explains.

Dry harvesting does not have the same aesthetic appeal as crimson cranberries bobbing in water, yet it allows greater diversity in what the fruit can be used for. Once cranberries get wet, they lose their protective sheen and absorb water. Consequently, dry-harvested cranberries are used for fresh, dried, and other processed products, while cranberries harvested in flood bogs are turned into juice and sauces.

“You won’t find two cranberry farms exactly the same around here,” says Wendy Hatton, of Hatton Farms in Grayland, who has several dry bogs. “Flood bogs are much more efficient at harvest time, although we have a pretty good system for collecting the berries dry.” She should know: her husband, Don, designs much of the equipment they use on their farm.

The Hattons have grown cranberries in this area since the early 1970s, and Don has become known for his engineering ingenuity—attested to by his big-wheeled transport buggies and vibrating destemming machine used on the farm.

In fact, homegrown invention seems a hallmark of Cranberry Coast farms. A special harvester called a “Furford Picker” is used to collect cranberries in dry bogs. It was designed in Grayland during the late 1940s by local legend Julius Furford. Farmers push it along like a lawn mower: it tosses the cranberries into burlap sacks secured on the back and, at the same time, prunes the vines. Furford Pickers are still made in the same facility, a weather-beaten set of buildings that doubles as a cranberry museum.

Many of the dry bogs have outstretched railway tracks so that rustic-looking flatbed cars can roll across the fields during harvest, picking up bags of cranberries which are then brought into large sheds to be taken off the vine, or “shook,” as farmers call the process.

“We just shake the berries off the vines [with a vibrating machine] and hold them in these large storage bins,” Waara says, pointing toward a row of hard plastic containers brimming with plump cranberries.

Most of the cranberry farmers in the Grayland area, and throughout the Northwest, for that matter, sell their fruit to Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., the largest cranberry company in the world. This Massachusetts-based, grower-owned processor has plants near wherever cranberries are grown in the United States, including a plant just down the road in Markham.

Besides going into Ocean Spray-branded bags of fresh cranberries, juice, canned sauce, and Craisins, the local fruit gets turned into nearly every conceivable form of cranberry-based product in the Grayland and Westport areas. Most of the stores and shops that cater to travelers on this stretch sell everything from cranberry saltwater taffy to cranberry pancake syrup to cranberry soap.

“Cranberry products appear to be popular with the tourists, or the shelves wouldn’t be packed with the stuff, ” Waara is quick to point out.

Story by James Patrick Kelly from the January/February 2009 issue of Northwest Palate magazine.
Photos: Dana Hopper-Kelly

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