Wisconsin's top fruit comes out for the holidays

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A ribbon of berries is collected by a mechanical raking machine. – Photo: Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association

As America's foremost gustatory holiday, Thanksgiving brings with it expectations of special celebratory foods. Topping the list is – or should be – the lowly cranberry. Even if we grew up staring with morbid curiosity as our parents plopped those quivering, blood red, gelatinous cylinders from cans onto plates, we've gradually learned to appreciate this strange fruit.

In Wisconsin, the cranberry holds special stature. In fact, it's the state's top fruit crop. We Badgers produce nearly 60 percent of all the cranberries grown in the United States, surpassing the output from runners-up Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington combined.

In 2004, the cranberry was named the state fruit, and the 2011 yield is expected to surpass 430 million pounds, or 26 cranberries for every man, woman and child on the planet, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, based in Wisconsin Rapids.

"Wisconsin has an abundance of the right combination of conditions you need to grow cranberries," says Tom Lochner, WSCGA's executive director. "We have plentiful water, the right soil and weather conditions and a tradition of growing and cultivating cranberries."

Scientifically speaking, cranberries are produced by a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs of the genus "oxycoccus." While that might sound like a social disease, it's actually a relative of the blueberry. Cranberries grow on low trailing vines and favor sandy, acidic soil. The plant's bright pink flower and stem configuration was thought by early North American settlers to resemble the head and neck of a Sandhill Crane, initially earning the tart fruit the name "crane berry." The name was later shortened.

Cranberries were first cultivated in the Wisconsin territory in the 1830s. The crop now accounts for major agricultural activity in 20 central and northern Wisconsin counties. The vines grow on an aggregate 180,000 acres of wetlands, the harvestable areas of which are flooded with up to 8 inches of water each fall during harvest season. The fruit floats to the top and mechanized harvesters automatically separate it from the vines. 

Despite the difficult financial times, Wisconsin's cranberry crop still contributes $300 million annually to the state economy and accounts for 3,400 jobs.

"The sweet dried cranberries – Ocean Spray calls them 'Craisins' – have allowed local growers to really open up overseas markets," Lochner says. "Ten to 15 years ago, roughly 5 percent of out total output was exported. That number is now 30 percent."

The economic impact of the cranberry aside, there are still more reasons to recommend Wisconsin's top crop for the Thanksgiving table. Cranberries have been designated a "super food" because of the vitamins and nutrients packed into each little berry. The fruit also offers significant health benefits, according to information gathered from various studies by the Carver, Mass.-based Cranberry Institute.

Diets supplemented by cranberries have been connected to a lower incidence of tumor development among breast cancer patients. Cranberries also can help protect the brain from neural damage caused by the release of free radicals that can lead to motor or cognitive function loss. A component in cranberry juice can inhibit production of certain oral bacteria that can lead to dental plaque and periodontal disease.

In addition, cranberries are good for your heart, producing flavonoids and polyphenolic compounds that are a potent antioxidant and aid in the prevention of atherosclerosis. A compound found in cranberry juice combats the bacteria responsible for the formation of peptic ulcers. There is even evidence to show that cranberry juice can contribute to the prevention of urinary tract infections.

And, if all that weren't benefit enough, cranberries are finding their way into cosmetics, thanks to their vivid natural color and healthy characteristics. A growing number of commercially produced natural exfoliants contain cranberries, largely for their anti-microbial qualities that are especially good for use on mature and sensitive skin. 

But the fruit's biggest draw is still that tart, vivid flavor that provides a sharp Thanksgiving table contrast to roast turkeys, thick gravies and other seasonal goodies, Lochner says.

"Public appreciation for cranberries has increased over time," he says. "It's true that some of that has to do with health benefits, but these days we're all consuming a lot of cranberries."

For more information and some innovative cranberry recipes, visit www.wiscran.org.

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