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Cranberries Down East

Photo by Charlie Armstrong

Cranberries Down East

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If turkey was on your winter holiday menu, chances are it was served with cranberry sauce. Perhaps you strung fresh cranberries for decoration or baked them in bread.

But is that the extent of cranberry consumption until next year?

No way, say an increasing number of consumers in Maine, including visitors to the state. The dark red berries traditionally relegated to the November-December holiday season are being rediscovered in Maine, and that's good news for the state's fledgling cranberry industry.

"There is increasing interest in buying Maine cranberries year-round because of their health benefits and the many ways they can be prepared," says Charlie Armstrong, a cranberry expert with The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, who provides growers with the latest information on integrated pest management and other innovations.

In 1989, two Maine cranberry farms were established in Jonesboro and Trenton. Today, there are 38 cranberry farms in the state, most of them in Washington County, scattered from Cherryfield to Calais.

Photo by Charlie Armstrong

With many of the cranberry beds now reaching maturity, growers are more than doubling their harvests. This season, roughly 18,000 barrels (1.8 million pounds) were harvested, worth an estimated $360,000.

Most of the 5.5 million barrels of cranberries produced nationwide are grown in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington and Oregon. But Maine growers are finding their niche in the market.

Maine cranberries are sought-after for their quality, particularly their deep crimson color. Like their close relative, the blueberry, the state's cranberries contain a healthy amount of cancer-fighting antioxidants.

In addition, many Maine farms planted a hardy variety of cranberry that produces fruit that can grow to the size of cherries.

Growers are increasingly successful in selling fresh-picked berries at roadside stands and in local grocery stores. Some are offering pick-your-own opportunities during harvest season in early October. Unlike wet-harvested cranberries that must be immediately processed, hand-picked cranberries stay fresher longer.

Members of Maine's cranberry industry also are marketing value-added products in their shops, local stores and on the Internet. One grower in Columbia Falls makes cranberry vinegar; another in Jonesboro sells dried cranberries and gourmet specialty foods cranberry fudge, and chocolate- or yogurt-covered dried cranberries.

As small businesses, cranberry farms allow growers to diversify their crops and interests. For instance, one grower is a lobsterman; another is an apple grower, who now markets apple-cranberry juice.

"There are still exciting things to come from Maine's cranberry industry," says Armstrong. "They are part of Maine-grown produce that is a cut above the rest."

by Margaret Nagle
February-March, 2002

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