There are cranberries everywhere at Yellow Point Cranberries — but not floating in water like you might expect.
It’s dry harvesting time at the 22-acre farm owned by Grant and Justine Keefer, where the berries typically sold as fresh cranberries are picked, and the wet harvest, with farmers standing in fields filled with floating cranberries, won’t come for another few weeks.
Dave Mack, a neighbour on Yellow Point Road who has been helping the Keefers with harvesting for 10 years, explained the harvesting methods as a tour guide during Cranberry Harvest Days this past weekend. The Keefers were in Richmond helping Grant’s family with their cranberry harvest, so Mack led tours of the demonstration field and packing shed, explaining how cranberries grow.
This year is the Keefers’ 10th year harvesting cranberries. The property used to be a potato farm, and it had been left derelict when the Keefers purchased it in 2001, explained Mack.
During the Cranberry Harvest Days tour, Mack explained the dry harvest, which takes place earlier than the wet harvest.
Yellow Point Cranberries belongs to the Ocean Spray co-operative, and the timing of the wet harvest is determined by the co-operative, explained Mack.
“There are 80 cranberry farms in B.C., and if everyone harvested at the same time, they’d be inundated,” he said.
Mack expects the wet harvest at Yellow Point Cranberries will probably be in another three weeks or so.
Although most berries grow as shrubs, such as raspberries and blueberries, cranberries grow on vines, explained Mack.
“When they plant the vines, they have to be trained in a certain direction,” he said. “The vines are three inches deep; they hug the ground.”
Mack says the twigs from cranberry vines root very easily. The vines flower in the spring, and they are self-pollinating perennials.
Cranberry vines must be pollinated by bees, explained Mack, noting the Keefers bring in 30 bee hives each spring, and there are some natural hives near the cranberry fields.
Mack showed the visitors a dry picker, a machine that Keefer designed that looks a little bit like a lawnmower. It picks up the berries from the vines on the field, and they end up in a burlap sack in what Mack calls a very slow process.
“Because it’s not a big market, the machines are basically designed by the cranberry farmers themselves,” noted Mack.
Dry harvesting doesn’t take all the berries off the field, so they might be able to wet harvest a field after the dry harvest, noted Mack.
“Dry-picked berries aren’t as bruised as the ones later in the season,” he explained. “Also, they’re not as ripe as the wet-harvested one. These earlier berries are used more for the bags of cranberries you would buy. The later berries are used more for juice.”
During the wet harvest, the fields — which are meticulously leveled — are flooded. Workers go through the flooded fields with a machine that looks like a chariot, which is called a beater, and agitate the berries.
“When you agitate the berries, they all float on the water,” said Mack.
Workers get into the field with booms and push the berries across to a corner, where they are placed on conveyor belts and into trucks. Mack says it probably takes two days to wet harvest a field.
The water comes from nearby Michael Lake, which also supplies neighouring farms like McNab’s Corn Maze.
Mack says about 90 per cent of cranberries are wet-harvested.
Yellow Point Cranberries produced 170,000 pounds of cranberries on 18 acres, according to Mack. In nine years, they’ve taken almost one million pounds of cranberries off their fields.
Mack says there are five cranberry farms on Vancouver Island, and B.C. produces about 95 per cent of Canada’s cranberries.
For more information about Yellow Point Cranberries, visit www.yellowpointcranberries.com.
The farm is located at 4532 Yellow Point Rd. and is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. from September to December.