If you’re ever looking for a completely different harvest experience, Quebec is the place to go.
Cranberries are a big deal in La belle province and getting a close-up look at the harvest was a highlight for a group of ag journalists during a recent Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation tour.
Yes, a tractor is involved — but only briefly and then it’s time to flood the bank-enclosed fields, corral the fruit, and turn on the suction pumps to hoover up the bright-red berries.
But then, pretty much everything about growing cranberries compared to grain is as different as can be.
It costs about $40,000 an acre (mostly for irrigation) to establish a cranberry crop and you have to wait about five years for plants to mature and produce their full yield. But the payoff keeps coming.
“Once you plant the cranberry, you can keep it up to 100 years,” said tour guide Rejean Leblanc, a cranberry producer and ag economist in the pork sector.
However, the bush-like vines need constant care.
“Through the summer, every year, you need to water the cranberry,” said Leblanc. “The cranberry needs water every day, but it doesn’t like to be sitting in water… (and) if you put on too much water in the summer, the plant will just grow and will not focus on making the fruit.”
Leblanc waters his cranberries with sprinklers. Excess water goes down a drain and then back to the reservoir in a closed system. The fields are flooded in the winter to protect the plants.
“That’s what makes it expensive to establish. It’s digging the pond and the drain and the pipe. But once it’s done, it’s good for a long time.”
Plants must be pollinated between June 20 and July 15 by honeybees or bumblebees. Then the fruit will appear at the end of July or the beginning of August. Cranberries are biannual crops that bear fruit, rest during the fall, and then make their buds for the next year the following August.
“The goal for a producer is to be able to manage the fruit and the buds you’re making for the following year,” said Leblanc. “If you give too much nitrogen, the plant will make new seeds and will not bear too much fruit.”
The plant also needs to be stressed so that it focuses on making buds, and not on growing.
“To find the equilibrium between water, stress and everything, that’s the challenge for cranberry producers,” he said.
The amount of nitrogen given is critical.
“If you give too much water or too much nitrogen, the plant will just grow and she will not bear fruit or will bear less fruit,” said Leblanc. “You have to find the balance in your farm to be able to have a good harvest every year.”
Cranberry pests include caterpillars that eat buds along with wild turkeys and Canada geese, which can damage plants in the frozen ponds.
Harvest is a complex process involving a lot of water and time. First, fields are flooded with eight inches of water, and then there’s a bit of tractor time. It pulls an implement with blades that shake the berry plants so their fruit falls off. Then the fields are flooded up to 20 inches deep, the fruit floats to the top, and wind pushes the berries into one corner where they are sucked up.
And although there are only about 10,000 acres of cranberry production in Quebec — mostly in the Centre-du-Quebec region near the provincial capital — it’s big business. Last year, the province’s 82 cranberry producers harvested about 215 million pounds of cranberries — production that is second only to Wisconsin.
But there’s no organic production in the U.S., while Quebec has embraced that market. Conventional cranberries fetch 25 cents a pound, while Quebec’s 30 organic producers receive about 60 cents.
That price differential prompted Leblanc to switch from conventional to organic production. He now brings in Mexican workers to hand weed his bogs and fertilizes with chicken compost.
“A good conventional farm, last year, some had 50,000 pounds an acre, and the best organic was 30,000,” he said. “The average organic was 22,000 and the average conventional was 40,000. You have to take that into account.”
And because the fruit is biannual, one year’s harvest is bigger than the next. This year’s harvest is estimated to be about 100 million pounds less than last year’s harvest.