When picking cranberries for the Thanksgiving feast, we Washingtonians are hard-pressed to find a brand that conforms to the new American dream: local, sustainable, and organic. Ergo, tough choices must be made.
“There’s no organic cranberry grower in the state,” says Bruce Lachney, owner of Rainier Mountain Cranberries. He’s not apologizing. It’s just the way it is: Cranberries grow in a “mat”—a slow-vining plant that creeps over the entire bog, twisting and spreading decade after decade. Unlike with crops in rows, there’s really no way to weed between cranberry plants by hand. And since aphids and ladybugs—the predators most organic growers depend on to kill harmful bugs—can’t survive well in the wetland environment cranberries require, growing them organically is difficult and expensive. In fact, the only crans you can buy with a “100 percent organic” label travel here from Wisconsin or Massachusetts, and that takes a lot of fuel.
Lachney uses herbicide sparingly on the bogs, leaning on biorationals—a pesticide that degrades into nontoxic compounds—for the plants. “The amount of pesticide you’ll put in your mouth eating nonorganic cranberries for a season is far less than what you ingest brushing your teeth every morning,” he says.
If you find that argument hard to swallow, look a little further down the road to Oregon’s Stahlbush Island Farms, a cran outfit that describes its growing as almost completely organic. But Tracy Miedema—the national sales and marketing manager for Stahlbush Island Farms—says growing organically presents other problems. “Between mechanical weeding and transportation, you’re talking a lot of diesel. If you’re trying to assess a carbon footprint, your work is cut out for you,” she says.
Picking a cranberry, then, is like choosing a presidential candidate: You prioritize what matters most to you and vote (or buy) accordingly. But whether you go local, almost organic, or organic-but-from-far-away, your holiday guests will love the punched-up flavor of any dish featuring fresh crans. Just remember, no talking politics at the table.
Look for cranberries from Rainier Mountain Cranberries at the University District Farmers’ Market. Find Stahlbush Island Farms’ berries, as well as frozen organic brands, at Whole Foods Markets.