The next time you enjoy a holiday feast (or a breakfast muffin) featuring the tangy taste of cranberries, take a moment to savour what is one of our truly local delicacies. Along with blueberries and Concord grapes, they’re on the very short list of fruits indigenous to Canada that are cultivated commercially.
Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census of Agriculture reported that cranberries and blueberries have been star performers for the country’s fruit-production sector lately. Between 2011 and 2016, the area devoted to growing cranberries increased from 15,191 acres to 18,134 acres, while exports of fresh cranberries rose 77.6 per cent. British Columbia and Quebec account for the lion’s share of Canadian cranberry production, with more than 80 producers each.
Ontario had a scant three cranberry producers until April 2017, when the Wahta Mohawks First Nation announced it was shutting down Iroquois Cranberry Growers. It had operated since 1969 — and was once considered the most successful Indigenous community-owned business in Canada — but was forced to close after a worldwide surplus saw cranberry prices drop dramatically.
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Ontario’s two remaining growers are Upper Canada Cranberries, near Ottawa, and Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh, near Bala. “For the last 20 years, the price of cranberries has been very low, so it’s not tending to be a growing industry [in Ontario],” says Wendy Hogarth, owner of Johnston’s. However, “Quebec has aggressively pursued a cranberry industry with government-backed loans. Quebec came online with a huge amount of acreage, and growers have been getting more efficient — there are new hybrids that are better yielders.”
Still, just because this province doesn’t produce very many, don’t think Ontarians don’t love their cranberries — especially in Bala, known as the Cranberry Capital of Ontario. Bala’s cranberry connection began with George Mollard, who noticed wild cranberries while he was surveying peat bogs and started the first cranberry farm in the area in 1950. Hogarth’s father-in-law, Orville Johnston, got his start in the industry working on Mollard’s farm.
Many people imagine that cranberries grow in water, but that’s not the case. Commercial crops are flooded at various times of year to protect them from weather extremes, and also to make harvesting easier; ripe berries float to the surface, where the blazing scarlet fruit not only looks spectacular under grey autumnal skies, but can also be conveniently scooped up by mechanical harvesters.
In 1984, Bala inaugurated its annual Cranberry Festival, held at the end of the harvest, on the weekend after Thanksgiving. The volunteer-run initiative in this town of just 400 year-round residents has become one of Ontario’s favourite food events, attracting between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors every year — “depending on weather,” according to board member Tiffany Bol. “We did an economic impact study a couple of years ago, and it brings in $700,000 or $800,000,” she adds.
The attractions? Photo ops in the flooded marsh, cranberry crepes from St. Alban’s Church, cranberry confections from Don’s Bakery, cranberry sausage at the Bala Freshmart, and pickerel and chips with cranberry tartar sauce from Bol’s restaurant, the Moon River Lookout. And, of course, cranberry cocktails.
The harvest may be long over now, but in Bala, cranberries are a year-round thing. Local businesses stock their cranberry creations all year, and Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh offers tours and cranberry-wine tastings every day except Christmas, Boxing Day, and Good Friday. You might say they have a cran-do attitude.
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.
Read more in our Ontario signature foods series:
- Beaver tales from Bytown: The story behind Ottawa’s favourite pastry
- Hogtown on a bun: How peameal bacon became Toronto’s signature food
- Home is where the butter tart is