Destination: Cape Cod Cranberries
By Megan Bame
For The Salisbury Post
When my husband Andy and I decided to spend our vacation touring through New England this past October, we had a limited travel agenda.
We were attending a wedding on Oct. 4 in Indiana, Pa., and we aimed to be in Wareham, Mass. by Oct. 11 for the Cranberry Harvest Celebration.
Beyond that, we were carefree (with the help of our GPS navigator), traveling through 13 states in 13 days. While we enjoyed all our sightseeing adventures, it was the cranberry harvest that tops the list for our favorite New England attraction.
The cranberry is one of only three naturally growing fruits native to North America. The other two are Concord grapes and blueberries. While Concord grapes and blueberries can also be grown locally, few folks south of Massachusetts can describe what a cranberry plant looks like, much less how it grows or when it’s harvested.
In fact, most southerners are probably most familiar with canned cranberry sauce that looks more like a cylinder of burgundy Jell-O than the bright red berry.
Perhaps you’ve seen the Ocean Spray cranberry juice commercials on television. They feature two men, donning chest-high waders, standing among a sea of ripe, red cranberries. It’s an accurate depiction of the bogs during cranberry harvest, but it leaves the door open for quite a few misconceptions.
First and foremost, cranberries are not grown underwater. They are flooded for harvest and winter protection, but spend most of the year on dry land.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Cranberries are perennial vines that form a low-growing mat over the soil surface. Walking across a bog is like walking across a closely-sheared lawn, just not as soft. The flooding for winter protection works in much the same way that local strawberry growers ice plants for protection from a late freeze. When encased in ice, the temperature of the plant is maintained above 32 degrees and protected from drying, chilling winds.
In the case of cranberries, however, the plants are dormant through the winter. Since the temperature in Massachusetts may stay below 32 degrees for several weeks at a time, the flooded bog becomes much like a shallow, frozen pond.
The farmers take advantage of this opportunity to drive through the fields without damaging the plants. During the winter icing, they apply a layer of sand over the ice so that when the ice melts, the sand will settle into the field. The sand provides some nutrients and encourages the vines to send out new growth, thickening the vine mat. When the ice melts, the water is pumped back to the reservoir and used for irrigation as needed.
Every acre of cranberry bog has at least three acres of “support land” such as reservoirs, wetlands and uplands that store or transport water to the bog, which has an impermeable layer of soil at its base that allows it to hold water. During the spring and summer growing season, the roots require good drainage, which is provided in part by the sand and peat that make up the top layers of the bog’s soil profile. The berries begin to ripen in late September and the harvest is complete by early November óabout eight weeks.
Now, back to those flooded bogs filled with floating berries.
There are two methods of harvest, wet or dry. Wet harvest is what most folks envision and how the majority of cranberries are harvested. Water is pumped from a reservoir pond, enough so that the plants are completely submerged. The buoyant berries float in the water, but are still held fast to the vines. The harvest machines, resembling a dune buggy on stilts with a waterwheel-like attachment on the front, move through the field in a pattern that ensures all berries are harvested (overlapping slightly, similar to mowing the yard).
The rotating attachment pops the berries from the vines and they float uninhibited on top of the water. Because some are inevitably damaged during this process, all berries that are wet-harvested are used for juice, sauce and cran-raisins (sweetened, dried cranberries).
Once the harvesters and their spotters determine that all the berries have been picked off the vines, more water is added and the guys with waders get to work. They use a long, flexible float to corral the berries in one corner of the bog. A small trough is staked into the ground with the top of the trough just below the surface of the water. This stainless steel trough is attached to a large hose that becomes vacuum-like.
The berries are raked over the trough and sucked up to a conveyer where the water is sent back into the bog and the berries are loaded on a tractor-trailer truck and immediately delivered to the Ocean Spray plant in Middleboro, Mass. Ocean Spray is actually an agricultural cooperative owned by about 600 American and Canadian cranberry growers and 50 Florida grapefruit farmers.
Dry harvested berries are mostly sold fresh. The dry harvest requires another specialized, walk-behind machine that hugs the ground as it moves across the field. The vines are lifted off the ground and a comb-like attachment pops the berries off the plant. The berries ride up a short elevator belt where they are gathered in a burlap bag at the back of the machine. When the bag gets full, the operator sets it in the field and continues on with a new bag. At the end of the harvest, the bags are carried to a large cargo-like plastic crate. At the end of the day, rather than driving through the fields to pick up the large crates and potentially damaging the vines, a helicopter comes to lift the crates out of the fields, placing them on a flatbed truck to be hauled to a grading facility.
Cranberry fruit turns from green to white to red, but it can be difficult to determine with the naked eye when the berry is ripe. The method suggested by the growers was to bite into one and if the tiny seeds are brown, then the berries are ripe. The berries will never be “sweet.” They are a tart fruit, but may be less tart when fully ripe.
Another quality control method used for grading is the bounce test. Ripe cranberries are quite firm and they must bounce at least one inch high to move on to be graded by size before final inspection by human eyes.
Fresh cranberries can be stored for several weeks without refrigeration and several months if refrigerated. The holiday presence is no coincidence, since fresh berries are only available October through December. Unlike other produce, there isn’t much South American production. In fact, 82 percent of the world cranberry production occurs in the northern United States, due to the ideal soil profile and long winters to meet the cranberry’s chilling requirement to break dormancy. Given that Wisconsin and Massachusetts account for more than 75 percent of the U.S. crop, it is truly an example of specialty agriculture.
And with a backdrop of New England fall foliage, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful harvest.
Freelance writer Megan Bame lives in Rowan County.