New Cranberry is the latest in the line developed at Rutgers to meet changing industry needs

The new Haines variety is expected to do well in the popular sweetened dried category (think Ocean Spray’s Craisins).
Photo: Roya Rafei

Rutgers researchers have developed a new, hardier variety of cranberry that is able to withstand disease and has a larger round berry with a more even color than other breeds.

The Haines variety – named after William Haines Sr., a Burlington County farmer who died in 2007 – is in the process of being patented. But the cranberry, which will do well in the popular sweetened dried category (think Ocean Spray’s Craisins), has just been released to farmers but the fruit will not begin to be harvested until 2017, said Nicholi Vorsa, director,  Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension in Chatsworth, Burlington County, part of Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES).

Americans consume an estimated 400 million pounds of cranberry each year, 20 percent of it around Thanksgiving – and New Jersey is near the top of all that cranberry production. The state ranked third in the nation in cranberry production in 2014, making 626,000 barrels, according to a federal Department of Agriculture report, which puts New Jersey’s crop value at nearly $22 million.

Rutgers researchers continuously experiment to create new varieties of cranberries to address the challenges facing the industry, such as changes in farming regulations, the environment and consumer taste.

“As more agriculture is being regulated and we’re losing the ability to control insect and disease, we are developing new methods that are much more environmentally compatible,” Vorsa said.

Fruit rot, a disease caused by a number of fungi, is cranberry’s No. 1 threat. To make matters worse, one of the fungicides growers were using was banned in Europe, which imports cranberries from New Jersey.  

“Breeding and selection is pretty fundamental,” Vorsa said. “If we can increase the resistance in the crop, growers would have to rely less on the pesticide.”

Shawn Cutts, president of American Cranberry Growers Association, which represents 25 family farms in New Jersey, said the work that Rutgers researchers do helps the industry thrive.

“Not only do they help us grow higher-yielding cranberry varieties, but they are also working toward helping us grow varieties that are resistant to fruit rot,” said Cutts, who has two farms in Burlington County.

As consumers’ eating habits change, so does the research. In the 1930s and 1940s, researchers were breeding cranberries that were best for making sauces for Thanksgiving. When Ocean Spray expanded its juice market, there was a demand for cranberries that were rich in color for juicing. In the last 15 years, the principal product for growers is the sweetened dried cranberries, such as Ocean Spray’s Craisins. About 90 percent of New Jersey’s crop is for Ocean Spray, he said.

“They want a berry that’s large, that’s round and all the berries are all the same color,” Vorsa said.

That’s where the Haines variety will be beneficial to growers.

There is also climate change. As the climate gets warmer, particularly extreme heat in summer, there is a higher tendency for disease and heat stress to develop in the crop. But three of the Rutgers cranberry varieties – Crimson Queen, Mullica Queen, Demoranville – have a higher tolerance to heat than older varieties.

Nicholi Vorsa at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension in Chatsworth
Photo: Roya Rafei

The research that Vorsa and his team conduct at Rutgers doesn’t just help growers in New Jersey but throughout the country, including Wisconsin, which produces the most cranberries in the United States. “The Rutgers varieties are doing extremely well in the main cranberry growing locations, including Massachusetts and Wisconsin,” he said. These Rutgers varieties are also being grown in Chile and Canada.

The Mullica Queen, released in 2008, has genes from varieties native to New Jersey, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.

“New Jersey offers the best site for breeding cranberry because we get winters and summers that are extremely variable,” he said.

The flower bud for cranberries are produced in late summer and fall and if temperatures dip too low in that time of dormancy, then next year’s crop can be lost. That is why cranberry beds are flooded in extremely cold regions during the winter.

 “The crop is not like corn where you sow it in May and reap it in August and all you worry about is a two- to three-month window. Cranberries have to be adapted through all seasons,” he said. “It’s a lengthy and costly process.”

 “There is a notion that you release a variety and it’s good forever,” he said. “And it some cases they can last a long time, but as ecology changes, breeding allows you to select for a varieties that are best suited for the current climate, pests and grower management requirements.”