Since whatever public consciousness exists of the cranberry industry likely starts and ends with a flooded marsh (a.k.a. bog, if you hail from Massachusetts, our second top cranberry-producing state), a day of downpours may seem a shrug-worthy affair. But as Colquhoun explains, everything from how farmers could (or couldn’t) complete scheduled work, to whether soil remained intact in the runoff, was impacted by this weather anomaly.
Climate Change Ups and Downs
In fact, unseasonal deluges are just one of the many variable effects of climate change on cranberries that are “creating ups and downs and leading to an inability to predict the weather, which is very troublesome for the industry’s growers,” Colquhoun says.
This doesn’t mean there’s likely to be any shortage of cranberries for sauces and pies this Thanksgiving. In fact, the industry is digging out of a glut whose affects started to be felt in 2017, thanks partly to growers adding acreage to meet a past increase in demand. But, says Katherine Ghantous, research associate at the University of Massachusetts’s Cranberry Station in East Wareham, when it comes to the longterm health of the cranberry business, “We are worried.”
What Cranberries Need
Cranberries are an amazingly hardy fruit that thrive within an optimal cold-producing range that stretches latitudinally from Canada to New Jersey; in addition to Wisconsin, they’re also grown commercially in Oregon and Washington. Like grapes, they grow on woody vines. Like lowbush blueberries, they prefer acidic, sandy soil. Like both these fellow North American natives, they can stay productive for a long time under the right conditions.
“We actually don’t know how long they’ll live,” says Colquhoun. In both Wisconsin and in Massachusetts, 100-year-old cranberry vines are still bearing fruit and “don’t have an endpoint that we know of.”
Cranberries do have special needs, though. One is several acres of supporting wetland or forest for every acre of marsh, to store water for cranberry production and filter out impurities. Another is “chilling hours,” accrued during winter’s frigid dormancy period. Yet another is ice, a thick covering of which helps protect those still-growing vines from cold — in Wisconsin, temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit are common. Ice also makes it possible for growers to drive buggies over their marshes every few years to spread sand, to rejuvenate the vines and control pests.
Unsurprisingly, erratic weather is a threat to the delicate balance between what a cranberry vine requires and what it receives from its surrounding ecosystem.
Climate Change Necessitates Changes
For starters, no amount of deluge, which only temporarily wets the soil, can temper the needs of a marsh for consistent water levels in its surrounding lands, which is something that used to be a lot more of a given. “Annual rainfall totals might be higher, but epic, less-frequent downfalls mean we have to change the ways we irrigate our crops,” says Ghantous. Since cranberry marshes are flooded for ease of harvest — the low-to-the-ground hollow berries float — “changes in available water change the way we harvest, too.”