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Crossing Cranberries

by Bee Mohn

The season of miracle berries is almost past. But don't despair, you can grow your own - cranberries, that is, by creating your own mini bog.

DIG IT! Territory is the just the right climate for these natives, with New Jersey being the berry's southernmost limit. In fact, New Jersey is the number three cranberry growing state in the country, with Massachusetts second, following Wisconsin.

It takes a long time to develop a cranberry variety, but at Rutgers University's Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry & Cranberry Research and Extension in Chatsworth, New Jersey, breeding is big time. Director Nicholi Vorsa started a breeding program there 18 years ago and just last year, assisted by Jennifer Johnson-Cicalese, research associate and plant breeder, released three new varieties: 'Crimson Queen,' Mullica Queen,' and 'Demoranville.' All will give the USDA's 'Stevens' - the most widely grown cranberry anywhere - a run for its popularity.

Mullica Queen: high yield, anthocyanins 57% higher than Stevens, flowers earlier
Crimson Queen: high yield, high TAcy, highest percent cover, flowers earlier
Demoranville: high yield, anthocyanins over 400% higher than Stevens in NJ, larger berry, flowers earlier

So, how does it all happen?
First, Johnson-Cicalese breeds, grows and tests plants at the research station in studies funded largely by Ocean Spray, the Massachusetts-based agricultural cooperative of cranberry and grapefruit growers. Then, select test varieties are sent out to field trials. The released and patented varieties are finally produced by specially chosen propagators who sell them only to Ocean Spray growers. These growers pay royalties per acre to Rutgers under a licensing agreement.

"We want to keep the varieties as pure as possible so we want to have some control over the process," she says. “Because Ocean Spray has supported our program so much, it's earned the right to only go out to Ocean Spray growers." After discussions with Ocean Spray on the best way to get a pure strain to growers, they opted for regional propagators such as Integrity Propagation in New Jersey. Owner Abbott Lee produces vines in cold frames and greenhouses to control purity and to keep the vines disease-free.

Developing a New Cranberry Variety
May/June: make a cross
August/September: pick the berries, refrigerate
After Christmas: extract seeds and plant them in flats in a 40-degree greenhouse
January a whole year later: cut vines back a couple feet and again into sections, taking about 30 cuttings from each plant and root them
February: plant 24 cuttings/plant into cell packs
Spring: plant cell pack seedlings in the field - 1 seedling/square foot/5 x 5-foot plot - all from the same parent plant with 50 to 100 plots/cross
Three years later: estimate yield and send out for field testing

Cranberry bogs occur naturally in areas with a shallow water table and acid soil. Particularly in Massachusetts and New Jersey, production cranberry bogs were planted in wild cranberry habitat. Growers dug a system of ditches, removed vegetation, and planted more productive varieties.

The Marucci Center has a 100-year lease on bog land at Penn State Forest. There, 20 half-acre beds are used for dozens of crosses and by other researchers.
“By growing cranberries you conserve a lot of wetlands because every cranberry grower has to have a lot of wetland to feed their bogs." - Johnson-Cicalese

Ditches surrounding the bogs are used mostly for irrigation - for cooling during summer, blossom protection against late frost, protection against freeze/thaw, and for harvesting. Ditch water is gravity-fed and controlled by damming the outlets with boards. Neighboring growers release water to feed their bogs, then release it downstream to the next neighbor's bogs, and so on.

Cranberries are harvested from late September through October. In New Jersey, most are water harvested and processed into juice and sauce. Bagged berries sold as fresh produce are dry-harvested with a small, walk-behind machine.

Bogs produce berries for 20 to 40 years. Some in Massachusetts are over 100 years old and produce very old varieties. Growers take bogs out of production and replant with higher yielding varieties when they become contaminated with other plants and become unproductive. “It's a big investment to plant a cranberry bog," says Johnson-Cicalese. “You start with a couple acres. In one year a vine grows just a couple feet."

2006 Cranberry Averages
Acres in production 3,100 NJ; 14,000 MA; 38,900 US
Yield barrels/acre: 156.5 NJ; 140.9 MA; 176.3 US
Total barrels: 485,000 NJ; 1,973,000 MA; 6,857,000 US; 8,080,000 global
Price/barrel: $35.50 NJ; $36.80 MA; $37.20 US
Total value: $17 million NJ; $72.5 million MA; $251.5 million US
Pounds/Capita Consumption: 0.10 US vs. 16.92 apples US
(from NJ Agricultural Statistics Service 1/07)

What's New in Breeding
The Alaskan Little Cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccus, has different anthocyanin pigment than the American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, the commonly grown and sold species. Anthocyanins contain antioxidants. Redder berries are more attractive to humans and to mammals and birds that spread its seed. Also, Little Cranberry's different sugars help make antioxidants more bioavailable. Vorsa has made crosses between Little and American species hoping to produce the yield of American and the anthocyanins of Little.

New Jersey's tropical-like summers cause fungal problems for cranberries, necessitating the use of fungicides. “We're very interested in developing a cranberry with resistance to fruit rot. It's easy to screen for fruit rot. If no fungicides are used it's very easy to see plants that are affected. In August and September we were able to rate fruit rot. When everything's covered in fruit rot, you know it's genetic," says Johnson-Cicalese.

Some crosses with fruit rot resistance have not yet produced well. It will take a few generations to develop resistance and good yield.

“If we can find the molecular marker it makes it much more efficient so the chance of finding a high yield plant is more efficient," says Johnson-Cicalese. “If we find the sequence responsible for rot resistance, we can take put it into a high yield plant and save ourselves dozens of years. We don't know if we can find the genes responsible because there's a good chance it's a lot of genes." So far, there is no genetic engineering being done on cranberries.

"We make crosses for rot resistance and then we try and find the ones that have the best yield among the rot resistant ones because there's no point in releasing something that's rot resistant if it doesn't have the yield growers need. We've been making crosses all along, trying to improve the yield and we also have been looking at rot resistance among them. So if something has really good yield but has terrible rot resistance, it wouldn't get released."

Color matters to growers. At the plant where growers bring their harvest, the berries are tested for TAcy, a measurement of total anthocyanins. If harvested early, the berries will not be red enough to produce a red color for juice.

White cranberries are simply unripe cranberries harvested early. "Ocean Spray is considering releasing a Rutgers variety that stays very white and that way the grower would be able to get the full yield out of it because when they harvest early, the berries are smaller," says Johnson-Cicalese.

In the Garden
Cranberry is a pretty plant with delicate-looking evergreen leaves that turn purple in winter. Plants flower in May and June and fruit turns red in August. They make an excellent ground cover in the right conditions: acid soil, wet feet, high amounts of organic matter and sand.

"It would be nice for people to have a better understanding of what goes on in a breeding project," says Johnson-Cicalese. “People are so paranoid about genetic engineering but, really, everything we eat people have been modifying for a couple thousand years since the first person selected seed off something that looked particularly good. That was the start of breeding, the process of selecting the best. You're changing the genetics of a plant and that's been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. When you're dealing with a crop that takes several years to produce fruit, it's a long, lengthy procedure. That's why some geneticists like the idea of figuring out some short cuts to speed up that process."

Johnson-Cicalese received a BS in Plant Science and MS in turf grass breeding at Rutgers University, and a PhD in turf grass breeding at University of Nebraska. After 20 years of turf grass breeding, she switched to berries, focusing on genetic resistance to fruit rot, evaluating flavanoid content, and improving color, yield, plant vigor, and sweetness. Nicholi Vorsa works to increase the cranberry's gene pool, gain identification through DNA (he identified over 1,000 genotypes), and enhance yield and fruit quality.

Fun Facts:
- 1 barrel cranberries = 100 pounds = 45,000 cranberries
- 450 cranberries = 1 pound
- 4,400 cranberries = 1 gallon juice
- Cranberries are primarily grown in MA, WI, NJ, OR, WA, British Columbia, Quebec
- 1 acre of cranberry bog is supported by 4-10 acres of wetlands, woodlands and uplands.
- Americans consume 400 million pounds of cranberries a year - 20% during Thanksgiving week.
- Native Americans used cranberries, fat and ground venison to make pemmican.
(adapted from www.oceanspray.com)

Where To Get 'Em:
Where to get cranberry and blueberry plants:
Rich's Plants, 1348 Route 542, Egg Harbor, NJ 08215
Richard De Stefano, owner: 609-965-6024, rwdestef4@verizon.net
Cranberry: cell packs, hanging baskets, 1 and 2 gallon pots
Varieties: Stevens, Early Black, Ben Lear
Blueberry: 1 year-old rooted cuttings, 2 year-old plants from propagating beds
Open: March, April, May and late September thru early November
Sells mail order and ships UPS.

Philip E. Marucci Center: http://pemaruccicenter.rutgers.edu/
Ocean Spray: www.oceanspray.com

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