Cranberry Bogs Offer Lessons in Yankee Ingenuity
Cranberry bogs are a unique aspect of the Massachusetts countryside that is sometimes overlooked. On the fourth Thursday of November, most Americans will sit down to their traditional Thanksgiving dinner, which will almost certainly include cranberry sauce. Despite the cranberry's widespread popularity, three-quarters of Americans have never seen a cranberry bog, let alone witnessed a cranberry harvest. That's a shame, because the vibrant hues of this crop at harvest time are a sight to behold–and the history of the fruit's production teaches us about innovation and teamwork.
The cranberry is native to Massachusetts, and the cranberry harvest is a vibrant event there. This proverbial Bay State sandlot happens to be responsible for 35 percent of the world's cranberry production. Given that 70 percent of the state's growers are small family farms with less than 20 acres of cranberry bogs, those are some pretty impressive bragging rights. The majority of cranberry producers are multi-generational families, with some fifth and sixth generation families working and living together on their farms.
Cranberries are a Family Affair at Bridgewater Family Farm
Bridgewater's Kravitz family is one of those multi-generational family farms. Adrienne Kravitz, who manages the Hanson Cranberry Farm with her father, Stan, was gracious enough to show me around. After Stan started experiencing some health issues, Adrienne resigned from a senior executive position with a worldwide consulting business to assist her father in running the farm. She also wanted to, in her own words, "engage with the soil and develop something that is good and good for you."
The Kravitz father-daughter combo works well together, and their mutual regard and affection was evident. I stepped out of my comfort zone and hopped up on a "berry washer," a chugging, heaving apparatus into which tons of cranberries were being poured, washed, and sorted, thanks to Stan's good-natured and patient urging. The photo below was taken from one of its highest points.
Cranberry Growing A Lesson in Cooperative Farming
I met the Kravtizs through Ocean Spray, which turned out to be an agricultural cooperative owned by cranberry producers across North America, rather than the corporate conglomerate I had assumed. Three cranberry producers led by lawyer and cranberry grower Marcus L. Urann founded the coop in Hanson in 1930. There are approximately 700 members today.
While considerable emphasis is made to our modern world's discord, people have been working together since prehistoric men and women collaborated as hunters and gatherers. The ancient Babylonians conducted cooperative farming, and savings and loan groups were established centuries ago in China. Benjamin Franklin, an American founding father, founded one of the first mutual insurance businesses in 1752.
The modern cooperative movement in the West is credited to Welshman, Robert Owen, as its founder. He used humanitarian ideas to empower workers in his cotton mills in Scotland, where the first co-operative store was established, in the nineteenth century. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was founded in 1844 by a group of 28 weavers and other workers in England. They wanted to work together to overcome the obstacles that the Industrial Revolution's scientific advances posed to trained craftspeople. The Rochdale Principles, a long-lasting paradigm for co-ops, emerged as a result.
Cultivation of the Cranberry Finds its Roots in Cape Cod
The commercial cultivation of the cranberry originated on Cape Cod. Henry Hall, the first documented cranberry planter, found inspiration in seeing an unexpected event influencing his crop as an asset rather than a problem. When he first began farming cranberry bogs in 1816, he found that the fruit was larger and more juicy where a covering of sand from the Cape's dunes drifted over the plants. There was the birth of a successful technique that is still in use today.
Aside from a sprinkling of sand dust, cranberries require a unique set of conditions to thrive: acid peat soil, fresh water, a long growing season from April to November, and a dormant phase throughout the winter. Cranberry bogs are the beds where cranberries grow, which were formed eons ago by glacial activity. Adrienne reminded us that the bogland also acts as a wildlife sanctuary, offering a home for bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, foxes, deer, and wild turkeys as we walked around her property.
"Screening" Cranberry Bogs and Historic Structures
Carver's Flax Pond Cranberry Co. uses the dry harvest method, which is now practiced by only 5% of North American farms. Dry harvesting has its own beauty, according to Jack Angley, who has operated the 100-acre farm alongside his wife, Dot, since 1967.
"The russet beauty of the changing vines and the colorful patterns of the harvesting machines traveling through the unpicked parts can only be seen through dry harvesting," Angley remarked.
The term "screening" refers to the process of cleaning and separating the fruit, and the Flax Pond site has a screening house that dates back to the 1890s. The structure now functions as a museum and a memorial to cranberry history. A 1926 Bailey separator is among the antiques on show, which distinguishes the good berries from the bad based on their "bounce" and size, which was a key determinant in the price paid by brokers. The tiny fruits were known as "pie berries," and only a baker would appreciate them.
"It was God's will that cranberries grow nicely here," Angley remarked sarcastically. "We have the sand, marshes, and climate to support the industry. The proximity of the water provides warmth and moisture, which prevents frost from being a major issue."
Most leaf-peepers' can't boast skill sets of picking, corralling, or loading cranberries. But if you want to enjoy fall colors in a different light, venture to the cranberry harvest in southeastern Massachusetts.
Cranberry Bogs A Different Kind of Fall Foliage
More than 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs are nestled among the municipalities between Carver and Harwich. The better-known seasonal skyline of gold, orange, and yellow can be seen rising from a spectacular crimson carpet in October.
Gail Marie Nauen, a Carver, Massachusetts native and painter, has been inspired by the bogs for over 25 years.
"The floating pinks, reds, and peaches that make up the cranberry harvest were shaded by the tall pine trees," Nauen described, recalling a recent scene. "With another sunrise tomorrow, the berries will take on a completely different appearance."
The Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association publishes a harvest route trail guide, which may often be seen from the side of the road. However, the bogs in their most vibrant hues are a fleeting event.
Fortunately, you don't have to rely on Mother Nature's whims or make educated guesses about the harvest schedule. There are venues that not only highlight the harvest but also appeal to history buffs, bird watchers, foodies, and festival goers.
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Experience The Cranberry Harvest For Yourself
One such event is the annual Cranberry Harvest Celebration. Each Columbus Day weekend in Wareham, Massachusetts, at the A.D. Makepeace Co., which co-sponsors the event with the growers association, the festival incorporates juried craftspeople and kid-friendly activities like "build your own bog." Chefs from the area put on cooking demonstrations, with cranberries, of course. Nearly 20,000 people attended last year.
Since the 1800s, Makepeace, the world's largest cranberry grower, has been farming cranberries. It will harvest 1,590 of its almost 2,000 acres in fall. Its cranberry bogs all have names, many of which are named from Indigenous American languages. With 75 acres, Wankinco is the largest bog, while half-acre Jacoby is one of the smallest.
A continuous exhibition of the three-phase harvesting process of plucking, corralling, and loading is a highlight of the Harvest Celebration. Over the course of the two-day event, 10,000 pounds of cranberries are harvested from the fields, allowing visitors to witness an amazing change.
After water has been supplied to a dry bog, a machine with "beaters" knocks the berries from the plants. Millions of ripe red berries bob in the water as a result of an interior air chamber that leads them to float to the surface.
Then, using a boom, a crew dressed in wet-suit-like waders "corrals" all the berries, encircling them and bringing them to one side of the bog. The berries are then vacuumed up into a tractor-trailer and delivered for processing after being suctioned up into a pump truck and washed.
Harwich Homage to Cranberry Bogs History
The Harwich Historical Society Museum at Brooks Academy, which is housed in a building that is actually a period piece, houses the history of all things cranberry. The exhibits detail how the Indigeous people of America taught European colonizers how to use the berry as a dye and medicine, as well as Captain Alvin Cahoon's first commercial crop in 1846. He and others helped build the commercial cranberry crop by purchasing and cultivating low, marshy property that was previously regarded to be worthless.
Cranberries have always appealed to me because of their tart and acidic flavor. My respect for both the bitter and sweet aspects of life has developed over time, and I've come to see that the threads of both are linked, much like the submerged vines that sustain the vivid, vigorous cranberries.
Here's to a delectable tidbit of Yankee ingenuity that will adorn the landscape for years to come.
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