Thanksgiving and cranberries: a Canadian tradition

Canada’s cranberry industry is vibrant. Canadian production is second only to the U.S. and the two countries supply the vast majority of the world market with this uniquely North American fruit.

New possibilities continue to emerge for the industry. For one, China’s cranberry purchases are growing 50% each year. Now available as fresh, dried and frozen fruit, or processed into juice or sauce, the berry offers impressive health benefits that have been recognized for centuries. Pemmican, made from ground cranberries, deer meat and fat was an old-school energy bar and a North American staple during the fur trade.

Quebec and British Columbia supplied more than 93% of total Canadian production in 2015 with growth in Quebec production vastly outstripping that on the West Coast. That growth has come via increased acreage and investments in productivity.

Over-supply not so sweet

But over-supply and the low prices that come with it have plagued the industry. Since 2009, Quebec production grew 113%, as cranberry farm cash receipts increased 5%. A similar story emerged in B.C. where farm cash receipts declined 6%, and production climbed 17% from 2009 levels.

Some over-supply is because of a recent backlash against the sweetening process used to enhance the natural tart flavour of the fruit. The berry was originally called sour or bitter berry by North America’s indigenous people who mixed it with maple syrup to diminish the bitterness. Other sweeteners have included honey and sugar, used to make juice and other beverages.

The industry’s recent demand enhancement initiatives have reduced the sugar in beverages and helped to increase consumption. Between 2005 and 2015, national production of cranberries grew 319%, a significant increase that was nonetheless exceeded by the 438% growth in domestic consumption. Over this time, Canadian exports also grew 245%.

The added-value processing of cranberries into sauce and juice has helped to drive that consumption growth; most harvested cranberries become juice. But it’s still fresh cranberries, available during the berry’s late autumn harvest that continues to draw the strongest demand.

A long, shared history

The reason why lies in history: Cranberry production and Canada’s Thanksgiving grew up together.

Early European settlers, long familiar with the use of sour fruit sauces as a culinary complement to wild fowl readily adapted old recipes to North America’s unique bounty. By the late-1800s to mid-1900s, North American commercial cranberry production was gearing up. It provided the sauce that was simply a new twist on an old tradition; one partner in a beautiful marriage of Canada’s national holiday first declared in 1879 to celebrate the fall harvest -- and one of that harvest’s oldest foods.

Happy Thanksgiving, Canada.