Veteran Colonel Abraham Jacob and Mrs Neena Jacob visited us this summer, to enjoy the lifestyle, culture and the landscape of Canada. In order to show them something unique to Canada, we decided to take them to the Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh located in Bala, Ontario on September 25, 2015, to witness cranberry harvest. Bala is a small township located in Muskoka area and is known as the Cranberry Capital of Ontario.
Cranberries are native only to North America and the natives who discovered cranberries used them for food, medicine and dye. Cranberries were so important that many myths were created around it. According to one tribe, cranberries were a gift from the Great Spirit brought to earth in the beak of a dove.
The early settlers called it ‘crane berry’ as the shape of the blossom resembles the head of a crane. Over time the fruit came to be called cranberry. Cultivation of cranberries can be traced back almost 200 years. Captain Henry Hall was the first to successfully cultivate cranberries with the first documented harvest occurring in 1816 in Dennis, Massachusetts, USA. William MacNeil planted Canada’s first commercial cranberry farm in Nova Scotia in 1870.
The properties of a cranberry are rather unique. They have a tart taste which comes in part from its ascorbic acid or Vitamin C content. The cranberries are mostly red and round and has a waxy coating. This waxy coating allows it to maintain its freshness after being picked. In fact, the cranberry’s Vitamin C content and its long life because of the waxy coating, allowed it to be packed in wooden barrels and taken on sea voyages in colonial times to fight the dreaded scurvy disease caused by a prolonged deficiency of vitamin C in the diet of the sailors. Packed in barrels with water, Cranberries last for long periods of time because they produce their own preservative, benzoic acid. The American sailing ships carried water-packed cranberries much the way British ships carried limes for their sailors. Traditionally, cranberry has been used for the treatment of urinary tract infections (UTI). However, there is no scientific research to support this claim.
The Johnston’s farms was started by Orville Johnston, who met his wife-to-be June at McGill University, where he was studying agriculture and she was studying home economics. He bought land in Bala in 1950 and began farming cranberries. Orv and June’s son, Murray, studied agriculture at University of Guelph with an eye on continuing the cranberry tradition. Murray’s wife, Wendy, studied recreation and tourism at University of Waterloo and education at University of Toronto. Despite being no stranger to agriculture, Wendy found cranberry cultivation particularly fascinating and dreamed of finding ways to share the Johnston cranberry story with visitors.
Together, Murray and Wendy continued the farm and added a gift store, activities for visitors and, finally, Muskoka Lakes Winery. The idea behind the winery was to take locally grown fruit and use traditional methods to craft artisanal wine. The farm is now open to visitors year round with wine tasting, trails, tours and kids’ activities. Murray and Wendy have four boys who help out on the farm.
Cranberry wines are grown in bogs. Bogs are wetlands characterised by thick moss, acidic waters, peat deposits and a spongy, mat-like substance on the water’s surface. Cranberries thrive best in beds within the bog, which consist of alternating layers of sand, peat, gravel and clay. Cranberry vines produce horizontal stems called runners that may grow up to six feet long and can spread profusely over the bog’s floor. The runners grow up to six inches in height with the berries hanging on the underside. Cranberries are perennial, but it takes 5 years for a newly planted bed to become established and produce a full crop.
Cranberries are harvested by end September and the harvesting season extends till the first frost, usually by end of October. The two methods employed for harvesting are the wet and the dry harvesting, yielding 100 to 200 barrels per acre. A barrel is the traditional unit of cranberry measurement and is equal to 100 pounds.
Wet harvesting as the name suggest, is done in water because it makes picking easier. Flooding floats the cranberries out of the tangled vines, making them easier to pick. The bog is flooded with up to 18 inches of water the night before the berries are to be harvested. Water reels, nicknamed “eggbeaters,” churn the water and loosen the cranberries from the vine. Each berry has four tiny pockets of air that allows it to float to the surface of the water. The machine used for the cranberry harvest is lightweight and equipped with balloon tires that do not damage the plants.
Dry harvesting uses walk-behind machines to comb the berries off the vines into bags and the bogs are not flooded. This time as the fall season had not set in fully and the land had not cooled adequately, the berries were not fully ripe to be wet picked. Hence we witnessed the dry picking procedure.
The fruit on harvesting are delivered to fresh fruit receiving stations where it is graded and screened based on color and ability to bounce. These berries bounce because they have four air-pockets in them. An early cranberry grower named John Webb had a wooden leg – and he couldn’t carry his cranberries down the stairs. So apparently he dropped them instead. The story goes that “He soon noticed that the firmest berries bounced to the bottom but the rotten ones stayed on the steps.”
Today, the cranberries are bounced on a board separator having angled wooden boards. Softer cranberries slouch against the slats, sliding into a box set aside for the compost heap. Somewhat sprightlier specimens make the cut for the juicer, while the top-shelf cranberries moves on to the conveyor belt below. These berries are then segregated manually based on their colours – white for wines and red for the table.
After the tour of the farm, we were treated to wine tasting, where all the of wines being made at the winery was sampled to the visitors. We then visited their shop selling all the cranberry products – sauce, jam, marmalade, jelly, etc – all hand made in small batches even today by Mrs June Johnston.
Photographs – Courtsey Hussain Chirathodi