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Giving thanks for Richmond's cranberry crop

Ahead of the big Thanksgiving weekend, the News was given a peak behind the scenes at the city's largest cranberry producer

As the rain battered off the faces of the men operating the beating machines, it was a pinch to think of the thousands of sauceboats filled with cranberries from this very field in a few days.

Yet there they were, a team of 13 mounted on their beaters in the Richberry field off Westminster Highway and No. 9 Road that was flooded less than 24 hours previously.

Although appearing to be in single file, beating down on the low-trailing cranberry vine that flowers every fall out of the region’s nutrient-rich peat bogs, the team is actually in concertina, staggered, if you will, to make sure each patch gets at least an extra 50 per cent treatment.

A few hundred metres away, a harvesting squad is busy wading through the crimson sea with a floating boom, convincing tens of thousands of pounds of crop to corral into the northeast corner of a different field.

It’s there that the cranberry meets its fate, sucked up via a huge hose, fed through a cleaning/separating machine and then into a container truck — en route to its ultimate destination of your juice box, granola bar or Thanksgiving dinner table.

“It only takes 30 minutes to fill the entire container truck with 60,000 pounds...from a 20-acre field,” explained the Richberry Group’s executive vice president of operations, Lynn Kemper, during a personal tour for the News.

“We used to get 400 barrels an acre (at around 100 pounds of berries per barrel) back in the day.

“Then it’s into the container and then driven to the receiving station here, where it’s cleaned again and processed (for shipping).”

Kemper, who’s been in the business for more than 25 years, said the record-breaking summer just past has not had a negative effect on the crop, unlike the scramble to harvest it created for the city’s strawberry and blueberry farmers.

“It’s a very hard berry and doesn’t go soft,” said Kemper, explaining that the company brought in 350 hives of bumble bees (usually honey bees) in early June to pollinate the crop.

“We were able to start (harvesting) early this year as the colour was there and we will go right through into November this year.

“We had to start early, though, because the crop was ready and we have such a large area to cover here.”

One of five Richberry Group farms in the Lower Mainland, Richmond was the first farm to start harvesting cranberries this season.

The harvest season usually peaks, said Kemper, around Thanksgiving.

Although the long, hot summer has produced a decent crop, the longer range cranberry picture isn’t so clear, said Kemper.

A consistent decline in harvest on the peat bogs over the last 10 years or so has compelled Richberry to enlist the expert help of a number of soil scientists from local universities and from a facility in New Jersey.

“This should have been the perfect season but there has been a decline over the last decade or so,” said Kemper.

“We’ve been trying to rejuvenate the vines but we are not at all sure why it’s producing less berries and some are dying off.

“It’s been getting worse each year; it could be the degradation of the peat, we’re not sure. We have soil scientists working on it with infrared imagery and they’ve been taking core samples.”

Unless the experts figure out what’s causing the downward turn, it’s going to continue to decline, lamented Kemper.

“Some of the fields have dropped by as much as 50 per cent.”

The crop may be faltering slightly in a local sense, but that hasn’t stopped Ocean Spray, the world’s biggest cranberry farming cooperative, tapping into the latest technology to spread the word of its product around the globe.

At Richberry this week, the News was one of the first in the world to experience “Oculus Rift Virtual Technology,” a short one-on-one film with 360-degree views documenting the flooding of a cranberry bog during the fall harvest in Richmond.

After donning a set of goggles Tony Stark (Iron Man) would be proud of, those lucky enough to experience Oculus are immersed in body and mind into a five-minute movie about the harvest in Richmond.

The film was recorded with the help of Go-Pro cameras mounted on harvesting equipment and workers last season and is a unique marketing tool that Ocean Spray intends, over the next year, to take to four different continents, including South America and Africa.

“It’s about spreading the cranberry message around the world,” said Kellyanne Dignan, Ocean Spray’s cooperative communications manager.

“We can’t take the farming all around the world, but we can certainly take the Oculus. It’s about taking the harvest to them.”

Unfortunately, although the film is available on Ocean Spray’s website, the public won’t be able to experience it.

The News did and, despite fearing motion sickness, our reporter came out the other end unscathed and armed with a new appreciation for the cranberry harvest in Richmond.

To celebrate the cranberry harvest and its connection to Richmond, the Richberry Group has agreed to be the presenting sponsor of “Community ROX Days” from Nov. 21 to 24, which is an exclusive preview of the Richmond Olympic Experience at the Oval for Richmond residents.

As well as sponsoring the event and being onsite with various exhibitions, Richberry will flood the Oval’s east pond with cranberries for the three days.