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Photo by Giles Clement.

Photo by Giles Clement.


Organic Cranberries

Joshua McNichols

Thanksgiving is only a few days away. Whether you favor turkeys or Tofurkeys, chances are there will be a dab of red cranberry sauce on the edge of your plate. Washington and Oregon are the only two states that grow cranberries west of the Mississippi. It's not an easy crop to grow, and it's even harder to grow organically. But that doesn't stop people from trying. KUOW's Joshua McNichols takes us on a trip to Washington state's cranberry country to find out more.


What comes to mind when I say the word cranberries?

Ocean Spray commercial: "What's the secret of Ocean Spray's fresh, clean taste? It's our cranberries. The way, we grow 'em."

Chances are it's a glass full of ruby liquid poured from a container bearing the Ocean Spray logo. Ocean Spray is a growers cooperative, and they've been pushing cranberries since 1930. They sell fresh berries, dried berries, they make sauce, they make juice drinks. Ocean Spray is the largest distributor of cranberry products in the US.

But in spite of their prominence in the market, Ocean Spray has yet to offer organic products. They dabbled in organic a little over a decade ago, but things didn't work out.

Now, one grower's stepping out of the shadow of the big cranberry company. Jessika Tantisook is trying to do something Ocean Spray could not: grow and market organic cranberries. That means no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Supposedly they're safe to eat right off the plant.

Tantisook: "So, if you want to try one."

Joshua McNichols: "Because there's that big air pocket inside, they pop!"

Tantisook: "Yeah!"

Tantisook stands in one of her cranberry bogs in Long Beach, Washington. She manages Starvation Alley Farms with her partner, Jared Oakes. She points to a couple of houses nearby.

Tantisook: "They've got a seven year old and a five year old, and I couldn't imagine coming out here with a sprayer mask and spraying something that I knew was horrible for people to ingest."

Organic farmers don't use herbicides to control weeds, so Tantisook and Oakes get down on their hands and knees and pull weeds.

Tantisook: "So this is buttercup — and I hate even saying the word buttercup because it's so horrible and when it gets in, it literally takes over the vines."

It's mind–numbing work, but controlling weeds by hand is just one problem. It turns out Long Beach is a lousy place to grow cranberries.

Dr. Kim Patten: "It's just a climatic issue. We just don't get enough sunshine when we need it in the middle of the summer. If you don't have that, it's really hard to grow cranberries."

That's Dr. Kim Patten. He runs Washington State University's agricultural research station in Long Beach. He's devoted 20 years of his life to cranberry research. And in that time, he's come to a painful conclusion: Washington state's cranberry–growing community is in the wrong place.

McNichols: "Why are we still growing them here?"

Patten: "Tradition, the infrastructure's here. If you went inland 20, 30, 40 miles you could get much better production. But your infrastructure's here, your farms are here."

Most of these cranberry bogs were built around 110 years ago. The farmers setup drainage systems and irrigation systems. They built dikes so they could flood the bogs at harvest time and scoop the floating berries off the surface. Later, Ocean Spray came in and set up processing facilities and distributions centers. To move all of this infrastructure would cost money; a lot of money.

Another thing that makes it hard to grow organic is the attitude. Old timers say you simply can't grow cranberries organically. Tantisook senses that skepticism when other farmers stop by to chat.

Tantisook: "Whenever they come out and if they offer any advice, the first thing is always like, 'Oh, this chemical would work really well if you used it.' But obviously we can't use those, and don't want to use those, and then the second thing is like, 'Oh, maybe you could use this, but probably it won't work.' And so it's not really advice."

In spite of these obstacles, they've managed to go a whole year without chemicals. This past September, Washington state certified their cranberries as first year transitional organic. They're the first cranberry farmers in Long Beach, Washington to do this.

The next challenge of growing organic cranberries is actually selling them. So Tantisook and her partner have been coming to Pike Place Market since October's harvest to try to test the waters; to see what customers want.

Tantisook: "Hi, would you like to try some cranberry juice or cranberry sauce?"

They've whipped up some gourmet sauces and raw, unsweetened juices. The juice proves a little bit too sour for Ron Korn of Scottsdale, Arizona.

Korn: "Look at the size I am. I only like things that are sweet! Maybe a little Sweet'N Low would have helped, artificial sweetener."

It'll take more than Sweet'N Low to win over Kim Patten. He says Tantisook and her partner have been lucky so far, but he worries about their farm's future.

Patten: "Probably the biggest obstacles are going to be that one disease that they can get that there's no cure for or that one insect that you can't control organically, and that will take them out."

Despite his skepticism, Patten admits that he impressed with their energy, and he hopes they succeed. Jessika Tantisook and her partner hope to achieve full organic status for their cranberries in two years.

I'm Joshua McNichols for KUOW

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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