The ketchup is “the same product you rely on year after year,” said Joanne Driggs, vice president at IRI, a market research firm. This year marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the sauce, which was invented by Massachusetts farmer Marcus Uran in 1912.
Less than two decades later, in 1930, Oran created the Ocean Spray Cooperative with two other cranberry growers: John Makepeace, also from Massachusetts, and Elizabeth Lee, from New Jersey. Canned jellied sauce became available nationwide in 1941, and their cooperative has now grown to be owned by 700 family farmers.
Last year, Ocean Spray sold 75 million cans of its jelly cranberry sauce, and the bulk of the sales—85%—occurred around the holiday season.
Some of that popularity can be attributed to younger millennials and members of Generation Z, who take over Thanksgiving plans from their older relatives, Driggs said. They also double or triple on cans because they host other small Thanksgiving celebrations, such as Friendsgivings, before the actual meal.
The price of ketchup is up about 21% from last year, Driggs said, but there are no supply chain concerns this year. She said cranberry production has in fact increased by about 4% as farmers across the country prepare a year ago to harvest about 15 billion red cranberries just for the canned jelly.
Bright red harvest
About 1,100 farms grow cranberries in the United States, and this year, the crop is estimated to produce about 8.3 million barrels, or about 830 million pounds, of cranberries, according to Karen Cahill, marketing director for the Cranberry Marketing Commission.
Many of the farms, like the 300-acre Rezin Berries in Cranmore, Wisconsin, are family-run. The farm, which has been in operation for 76 years, has sent berries to Ocean Spray for the past 50 years, and now saves around £1m each year, said Lisa Rizin, the farm’s owner, a figure that has grown throughout the farm’s history with the co-op. .
To grow an acre of cranberries, a farmer needs another 5 to 7 acres of support land, Razin said, just for the farm’s water tank system. Contrary to popular belief, raspberries do not grow in water, but rather in a moist, well-drained environment. These cranberry beds, also called bogs, are flooded—about 18 to 30 inches deep—when the berries are ready to harvest in September and October.
“It’s about knee-deep,” Razin said. “It just depends on which knees you measure.”
When the bed is flooded, fully-grown cranberries, which have four air pockets, naturally rise to the top. Farmers use hand shovels and tractors to separate the berries from their vines, while protecting the cranberry buds for next year’s harvest. The harvested berries are then bundled into yellow containment booms, the same type used to contain oil spills.
The ruby pool of swirling berries gets smaller and smaller as they are loaded onto a conveyor at the edge of the cranberry bed. The hauler dumps the berries into a truck, and the growers loosen any impurities from the vines before the truck heads to their cleaning facility.
At the cleaning facility, the berries move to another conveyor. There, they are flushed with water that goes back into the farm’s tank system for use in the next cranberry bed, and any water left over the heads of other nearby farms.
Once the berries are cleaned, they are transported to the Ocean Spray receiving facility in Babcock, Wisconsin, one of several across eight states where growers drop off the cranberries. There, the cranberries are cleaned again and frozen until ready for processing.
Back at the farm in January, more water was added to the flooded beds to freeze the cranberry vines and protect the buds from harsh Wisconsin winters. Every few years, farmers will throw about half an inch of sand over the ice. When the snow melts during the spring, the sand settles around the vines, which helps promote new growth and prevents fungus.
Factory canning time
Throughout the day, the frozen cranberries are transported from the receiving facility to Ocean Spray’s production facility, pictured here in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where they are laser-inspected, to ensure each one meets the company’s specifications for color and size.
The berries are sent through a machine that removes their skins and seeds, creating a smooth puree. The second mash is prepared with what the company calls presscake, skins and other preserved seeds from other Ocean Spray products, which contain the pectin that gives the sauce its gelatinous texture. Mix the corn syrup while preparing the purée. Once the mixtures were filtered and mixed together, they were sent to be packed into cans.
Empty cans move down the conveyor, where they are checked for defects and rinsed before they go to the filler, the machine that fills the can. There, hot cranberry sauce is poured into the can and a lid is added. Random cans are checked to ensure they are filled to the proper height and that the sauce has the right consistency. The sealed cans are then sent to a rotary tray to cool.
Cases are coded, labeled, boxed, shrink-wrapped, and palletized for shipment.
Eagle-eyed consumers may notice that the labels are upside down. This is intentional: This positioning means the cans will be served upside down on store shelves, making it easier for that cylinder of sauce to wriggle out of the can onto Thanksgiving dishes, a long journey that ends in a satisfying fall.