TURNER — On a Monday morning, Nate Vradenburgh sat with other farm workers as fresh cranberries rolled by on a conveyor belt.
With quick eyes and hands, Ricker Hill Orchard workers pulled out berries not good enough to get into bags and sold to stores.
White berries went in a bin for wine; mushed berries went in another bin for a pig farm. The good berries, all 200,000 pounds this year from the Turner farm, were sealed in plastic bags to be trucked to stores.
One of Maine's newest crops, cranberries, has taken off.
That means when you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, you don't have to settle for cranberry sauce plopped out of a can.
You don't have to buy out-of-state berries.
You can garnish your turkey with sauce from fresh cranberries not only grown in Maine, but close by at Turner's Ricker Hill Orchards.
According to University of Maine Cooperative Extension cranberry expert Charles Armstrong, Ricker Hill is one of the few Maine farms that grow cranberries sold fresh.
Not available at all grocery stores, this year Ricker's cranberries are sold at Hannaford, IGA stores and Whole Foods, grower Harry Ricker said. Walmart, which has bought Turner berries in past years, this year has only bought from Ocean Spray of Massachusetts, Ricker said.
Cranberries — packed with Vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber — aren't easy to grow. Their roots need to be kept wet. They need sunshine and cool nights to turn red.
Maine is a small cranberry producer, growing less than 1 percent produced in the United States. But, statewide harvest totals have climbed.
In 1999 there were 3,100 barrels (100 pounds per barrel) harvested. In 2000 that number jumped to 9,023. Last year 29,140 barrels were harvested.
Heralded for their nutritional value, “consumers in Maine definitely want fresh cranberries,” Armstrong said. “Even more, they want to be able to buy frozen cranberries. Stores have been reluctant to gamble with a frozen cranberry product, he said, “but I think they would be surprised how well they would move.”
Ricker said he's glad his eighth-generation farm decided to diversify. Growing apples in the 1990s was difficult. “We were looking for something to diversify. I did a lot of research, traveled around. It looked like our climate would be good for cranberries. That proved to be true.”
Most of Ricker Hill's sales are apples, but cranberries now claim 20 percent.
The Turner farm planted its first bog in 1997. Today the farm has 14 acres of cranberry bogs. This year the farm produced 200,000 pounds, the second largest for Ricker Hill. And this year was a good growing year. “We've got nice cranberries this year.”
Ricker said he has a lot of loyal customers “who love our cranberries.” They often go into stores asking for Ricker Hill cranberries by name. “That really helps," he said. “We need that local support.”
Hannaford spokesman Michael Norton said the Turner cranberries are popular with Hannaford customers.
“Ricker Hill produces a great cranberry, large, plump and full red,” Norton said. “Customers are seeking these out more and more each year. The tough part is the season is quick.” Often by Christmas Ricker Hill's berries are gone. “And customers are disappointed they can't buy them anymore.”
He and Ricker recommend people buy extra bags and throw them in the freezer. Fresh cranberries can be frozen for up to a year.
Hannaford also sells Ocean Spray cranberries from Massachusetts, a larger cooperative of growers, but is glad to support a local farmer, Norton said.
Cranberries help Ricker Hill diversify.
“When they grow they hopefully will need to hire more folks to help harvest, package and ship their product,” Norton said. That's why, he added, Hannaford has its 'Close to Home' program showcasing local growers. “We get to sell fresh, high quality products that support local communities,” he said. “Customers love local.”
For consumers who have never made cranberry sauce, Ricker recommends putting the can opener away and trying fresh.
“It's very simple to make. The recipe is on the bag.”
Harry's cranberry sauce cooking tip: "The recipe calls for boiling cranberries for nine minutes. I boil them for 12 minutes and mash them all up. It makes a thicker, smoother sauce. I eat cranberry sauce with peanut butter."
Another Harry tip: The recipe calls for 1 to 2 cups of sugar, but he recommends 1 cup or less. Because Maine is cooler than other states where cranberries grow, “our berries are sweeter. You don't need as much sugar.”