County Fairs in Washington Include Cranberrian Fair

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Cranberries, ripe and ready for the picking.
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Gathering cranberries is made easier by flooding the bog the night before harvest.
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After the cranberries are corralled, they're floated onto a conveyor, elevated into tote boxes and hauled to a processing plant.
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A mechanized cranberry beater moves grid-like across the bog to free berries from their vines.

October is National Cranberry Month, designated to celebrate the harvest season underway across the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each year, the small town of Ilwaco (population 1,000 and located on the southern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula in southwestern Washington state) attracts several thousand visitors to its three-day Cranberrian Fair.

In the 1890s, a few farmers took advantage of the local environment by introducing cranberries to the area. This tiny, red-fruited, shallow-rooted perennial grows low to the ground, and once a bog or field is established, it keeps producing a crop year after year. In fact, some of those pioneer cranberry bogs are still producing berries after more than a century.

The 2009 Cranberrian Fair is set for October 10 and 11 and will be the region’s 88th honoring this red berry. Visitors purchase a fair button at the local visitor’s center or Cranberrian Fair headquarters at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco to tour the museum, check out the numerous historical displays, wander among numerous local craft booths and tables manned by volunteers and area merchants, or ride the trolley past cranberry farms to the Long Beach Peninsula Cranberry Museum. A wide array of cranberry products is also available for viewing, sampling or purchase.

According to Stacey Pierro, a longtime volunteer, tasty “cranberry bite” treats are available from Ilwaco Harbour Village merchants at local restaurants for visitors wearing their fair button. While in Ilwaco, check out the scenic boat harbor that is home to a commercial and charter fishing fleet.

At the museum, visitors stroll past a variety of exhibits and displays depicting the history of the local cranberry industry. The museum is open to the public except in the winter months.

Self-guided walking tours are conducted on nearby dikes surrounding 10 acres of cranberry bogs, and people can visit a local bog to watch workers harvest the cranberries. These bogs are under the supervision of the local extension office and research center that has been in the area since 1925, supporting and assisting local cranberry farmers. The center is located next to the museum.

The research center bogs are harvested about mid-October by members of the regional cranberry cooperative. During the Cranberrian Fair, volunteer cranberry growers like Bob Hamilton, a part-time cranberry grower with five acres of land, are available to answer questions.

“The biggest misconception that people have about the cranberry industry is they believe that cranberries grow in water,” Bob says. “Farmers only flood a bog the day before they’re planning to harvest it, thus allowing the berries to float to the surface for easier picking.”

After the bog is flooded, a machine called a beater is driven over the floating vines to knock the berries free. The buoyant cranberries then rise to the water’s surface where wading workers corral the red bounty with floating booms and pull the harvest to one edge of the bog. The berries then are conveyed into tote bins on the back of a truck parked on a dike. From there, the cranberries are driven to a cranberry plant where they are washed, graded and processed.

Kim Patten, Washington State University extension horticulture specialist at Long Beach, says southwestern Washington has some 130 cranberry growers with some 1,500 acres planted in cranberries. About 600 acres are planted in bogs on the Long Beach Peninsula just a short distance inland from the Pacific Ocean. The Evergreen state ranks fifth in cranberry production in the United States, and income from the crop averages about $10 million a year.

“Most of the area cranberry farmers haul and sell their harvested crop to the local Ocean Spray receiving plant,” Kim says.

How much are growers paid? In the past, it was between $40 and $45 per 100-pound barrel. Kim says, “In a good year, a grower can get at least 100 barrels of cranberries from an acre, and most bogs are usually one to two acres.”

In fact, about half the Washington state acreage planted in cranberries is grown in fields (instead of bogs) that are harvested dry with combine pickers. These cranberries are often sold to the fresh market, while the wet harvested cranberries normally are processed into juice or sauce.

So if you’re planning an October getaway to the Northwest, schedule a trip to the Long Beach region of Washington state and immerse yourself in festival-fun Ilwaco.

For further information, check out the Cranberrian Fair’s website, or the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum can be reached by phoning 360-642-3446.