This Thanksgiving, Some Luscious Cranberries Have a Smaller Water Footprint

A cranberry bog in coastal Washington. Photo by Keith Weller/ARS/USDA
A cranberry bog in coastal Washington. Photo by Keith Weller/ARS/USDA

Growing cranberries, those plump red little fruits that add a splash of color and taste to our Thanksgiving plates, promises to get more water-efficient, thanks to a new technique pioneered on coastal Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Commercial cranberries are grown in bogs in the cooler regions of the northern hemisphere.  Big North American producers include Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, as well as half a dozen Canadian provinces.

To keep cranberries healthy during cold, frosty nights, farmers typically apply water, sometimes spraying their crops for many hours at a time.  As the water turns to ice, heat is released that warms and protects the berries.

Now, with help from a conservation innovation grant from the US Department of Agriculture, cranberry growers on Cape Cod have shown they can save water, time and money by upgrading their irrigation systems.

Sensors placed among the cranberry vines keep track of temperature and weather conditions.  The systems allow growers to monitor field conditions and control their sprinkler directly from their computers.  Previously, they had to do all of this manually.

With this smarter, automated system, the Cape Cod growers have seen their water use drop by some 9,000 gallons per acre on a frost-night.  Season-long water savings can run up to 280,000 gallons per acre.

So this week – when perhaps 20 percent of cranberries produced this year will be eaten – we can thank some innovative growers in Massachusetts for demonstrating how to shrink the water footprints of these tasty morsels in our Thanksgiving feasts.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. She is also Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and serves as lead water expert for the Society's freshwater initiative. Sandra is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, the basis for a PBS documentary. Her essay "Troubled Waters" was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. Sandra is a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and has been named one of the "Scientific American 50" for her contributions to water policy.

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