CAMDEN, N.J. — The cranberry bounces.
It also floats, and fights cancer, heart disease, urinary-tract infection, bad cholesterol and dental plaque. Its vines filter pollutants from water, and its color and tartness lend panache to the sophisticated Cosmopolitan cocktail.
Were the cranberry a person, it would be a physician/ecologist/bon vivant — the life of the party, celebrated for style, accomplishment and versatility. All of which makes it more in demand than ever before.
That's great news for local growers, who toil on about three dozen generations-old family farms, most within a 20-mile radius of Chatsworth, Burlington County, deep in the green isolation of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
The families grow the cranberries and the cranberries grow the families, a way of life that has existed for more than 100 years.
This year, with positive medical news fueling hunger for the fruit and a drought in Massachusetts knocking out some supply, there will be a shortage of fresh cranberries for Christmas.
Prices for both the fruit and juice will increase slightly, according to Chris Phillips, spokesman for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., a farm cooperative that markets 70 percent of the U.S. crop.
Jersey growers, whose 3,500 acres had a good yield this fall, are delighted.
"We had a record crop on our farm this year," said Bill Haines Jr., a Burlington County, N.J., freeholder and a fourth-generation grower whose Chatsworth farm is the second-largest producer of cranberries in North America. "And rising prices will be good for our growers."
New Jersey this year produced 52 million pounds of the berries, up from 48 million in 2006, said Ray Samulis, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington County.
Local growers are getting a better price, too — around $45 per 100 pounds, $10 more than last year, according to Stephen Lee IV, president of the American Cranberry Growers Association, who represents the sixth generation of growers on his family's Chatsworth farm.
That's a long way from 1999, when a glut of supply and stagnant demand sent the price to $10, said Joe Darlington, whose farm has been in the family since 1857.
"We've done a good job of getting back on our feet," Darlington added.
It seems as if everyone is in love with cranberries these days. Ocean Spray has seen sales of its products jump 40 percent since 2001, Phillips said. They increased 10 percent in the last year alone, when gross sales reached $1.7 billion.
The industry is getting well again thanks in large part to the steady flow of health reports touting cranberries as "wonderberries."
New Jersey growers, most of whom belong to the Ocean Spray cooperative, produce 10 percent of the country's cranberries. Nearly all of these are processed into juice and around 2,000 other cranberry products, from muffins to soap.
Massachusetts, which suffered a 25 percent crop loss, produces much of the fresh fruit that hits stores between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Peter Oudemans of the Rutgers University Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research in Chatsworth.
Wisconsin is the other big cranberry producer. New Jersey ranks third in the nation, blessed with the well-draining, sandy, acidic Pine Barrens soil that cranberries need to flourish.
For years, cranberries enjoyed a folkloric status as a "cleansing and purifying" agent.
Recent research has helped to solidify some of the health claims.
Just this summer, studies appeared that showed that compounds in cranberries may increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy to fight ovarian cancer. Other studies have verified that cranberry juice helps to prevent urinary-tract infection.
"Compounds in cranberries prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall," said Amy B. Howell, a plant chemist at Rutgers. Cranberries also raised HDL levels, the so-called good cholesterol, by 8 percent in a Canadian study, Howell said. And the berry works to keep plaque from sticking to teeth, she said.
Initially, many cranberry-related health studies were underwritten by Ocean Spray, Howell said. Now, she said, the federal government funds most of the research.
The health claims, which Ocean Spray has capitalized on in its advertising, are pushing the fruit into international markets, Phillips said. For reasons he cannot explain, Jamaica, which doesn't grow cranberries, now consumes more cranberry juice per capita than any other nation on Earth.
"The culture seems to take to the flavor and color," he said.
Haines, Lee, Darlington and the other Jersey growers have no answer for that one. They can only continue the work begun by their forebears, and hope that current trends continue.
More friends than competitors, the men of the bogs grew up together in the family businesses. They would like their children to keep things going, but "we don't pressure our kids to do this," said Darlington.
"It's hard and it's humbling, but there's a richness to the history and heritage," he said. "I've always enjoyed growing things."