By Lindsey Konkel for Civil Eats
Starvation Alley Farms’s Jessika Tantisook; Photo: Rich Crowder
As the holidays approach, fresh cranberries are once again appearing in grocery displays across the country. But if you’re hoping to score some organic cranberries, you might find yourself beating the bushes to find them.
While cranberries, in general, are considered a specialty crop in the U.S., organic cranberries are truly niche. Of the 40,000 acres of commercially managed cranberry bogs in this country, just a sliver — roughly 200 to 300 acres — are organic. All the organic cranberry beds in the U.S. could be squeezed into an area about one-third the size of New York’s Central Park.
Touted by dieticians for their nutritional value and prized by foodies for their culinary versatility, these tiny fruit are notoriously difficult to farm. Cranberries grow slowly. Many varieties are biennial bearing — it takes them two seasons to bear fruit. Cranberries grow on vines in sunken beds called bogs. Some growers dry-harvest the berries. Others flood the bogs and corral the cranberries, which float. Weeds, insects, and pathogenic fungi thrive in the boggy, wetland conditions needed to cultivate cranberries. And organic growers have few tools to fight these pests.
When Jessika Tantisook and her partner took over a conventionally grown cranberry bog in hopes of turning it into an organic farm, university researchers and other growers told them it couldn’t be done.
“There was astonishingly little information out there to guide us,” said Tantisook, co-owner of Starvation Alley Farms in Long Beach, Washington. Through trial and error, the couple began transitioning the 10-acre bog to certified organic — a process that takes three years.
The local agricultural extension helped them to identify pathogens and other growing problems, but offered little in the way of organic solutions. Tantisook says they relied heavily on tips from organics experts from other industries. For instance, they used compost tea to build up healthy organisms in the soil—a strategy they learned from an organic blueberry grower.
Starvation Alley Farms’s Jared Oakes: Photo: Rich Crowder