How Do Cranberries Grow?

bowls of cranberries and a branch with cranberries on it

By Liz Froment

Picture your Thanksgiving dinner. Now, what foods come to mind? Turkey, gravy, and... cranberries.

On your Thanksgiving table, you might have cranberries in your jelly, cornbread and even stuffing. But cranberries are also popular throughout the rest of the year: Walk around your grocery store and you'll find space dedicated to a variety of cranberry juices, plus fresh, canned and dried berries.

This little berry is native to North America—one of only three fruits that can hold that claim—and most people have no idea how it gets from the farm to your table. Here's what you need to know about the cranberry-farming process.

What Is a Cranberry?

Cranberries are classified as a fruit and grow on low shrubs and vines. It's a perennial crop, meaning the berries can grow on the same vine each year as long as it isn't damaged. On Cape Cod, in Southeastern Massachusetts, some cranberry vines are over 150 years old.

These berries are known for their tart flavor, but they are also chock full of vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients, making them increasingly popular as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Where Do Cranberries Grow?

Although cranberries are native to North America, they are only grown in five states. Wisconsin is the top producer of cranberries, growing nearly half of all the country's berries, followed by Massachusetts, which harvests about a third. The remaining production is in New Jersey, Washington and Oregon.

Cranberries are well suited to grow in wet marshy areas called bogs. It's uniquely able to thrive in colder temperatures. Ironically, the biggest consumers of cranberries are mostly warm-weather states. California, Florida and Texas are at the top of the list in America. Cranberries are also exported to the United Kingdom, Mexico, Germany and France.

In 2019, the United States produced just shy of eight million barrels of cranberries, with each barrel weighing about 100 pounds. Approximately 20 percent of all cranberries get consumed around Thanksgiving week.

What's the Cranberry-Farming Process?

Historically, cranberries grew in marshy and boggy areas of New England and the Upper Midwest. Some traditional bogs are still active. Today, cranberries are mostly grown in human-made bogs so farmers can control the factors cranberries need to thrive.

A key component of growing cranberries is that they require a unique environment. The vines or shrubs thrive in layers of gravel, then acidic peat soil and sand. The growing season runs from April to November, with the harvest in the fall, usually running from mid-September to mid-November.

Cranberries grow on the vines throughout the spring and summer. In the fall, there are two types of harvesting, wet and dry. About 90 percent of the entire cranberry crop is via wet harvesting.

The berries picked during dry harvesting are those that end up fresh in your grocery store or farmer's market. The cranberry harvesting equipment is about the size of a lawnmower and called a raking machine. The farmer walks along the beds and harvests the berries, loading them into sacks. Later, workers will go through this harvest, discarding the bad berries and packing the rest into the bags that head to your grocery store.

The cranberry farming process for wet harvesting is different. In this case, the cranberry harvesting equipment is very much manual. The bog gets flooded with about 18-24 inches of water about 12 hours before the harvest begins. The next morning, the farmers walk through the bog with large rods gently poking at the vines, loosening the cranberries which float to the top.

From there, farmers corral the berries and load them into trucks. These berries are what make up all the rest of the cranberry-based products you eat, from canned cranberry jelly on Thanksgiving to dried cranberry snacks and cranberry juice.

Cranberries are a unique and special little fruit. The next time you pour a cold glass of juice or take a scoop of jelly with your turkey dinner, remember how these berries got to your table.