Cranberry Harvests Yield A Colorful & Delicious Tradition in Massachusetts

Cranberry Harvests Yield A Colorful & Delicious Tradition in Massachusetts

When most Americans when sit down for their traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the fourth Thursday of November, a dish of cranberry sauce is sure to be on the table. Yet despite the ubiquity of the zesty condiment, three-quarters of Americans have reportedly never seen a cranberry bog. That is a shame, as the vivid hues of this crop at harvest time is a spectacular sight--and the history of the fruit's cultivation offers lessons in ingenuity and cooperation. 

The cranberry is native to Massachusetts. My proverbial sandlot of the Bay State happens to produce 35% of the world’s cranberries.  Those are pretty big bragging rights given that 70% of the state’s growers are small family farms with less than 20 acres of bogs. The majority of cranberry growers are multi-generational families, some fifth and sixth generation, with two to three generations often working and living together on their farms.

Cranberries Photo by the A.D Makepeace Company

Cranberries Photo by the A.D Makepeace Company

The Kravitz family of Bridgewater is among those multi-generational family farms. Co-owner Adrienne was kind enough to give me a tour of the Hanson Cranberry Farm, which she runs with her father, Stan.  Adrienne left an executive position with a global consulting firm to help her dad manage the enterprise–he had been operating the farm alone and had experienced some ill health.   She was also motivated by a desire to “work with the land and produce something that is good and good for you.”

The Kravitz father-daughter duo makes a good team, and their mutual respect and affection for one another was obvious. With Stan’s good-humored and patient prodding, I stepped out of my comfort zone and climbed up on a “berry washer,” a chugging, heaving contraption into which tons of cranberries were being dumped, washed and sorted.  The shot below was taken from its heights.

The Hanson Family Farm in southeastern Massachusetts 

The Hanson Family Farm in southeastern Massachusetts 

I met the Kravtizs through Ocean Spray—rather than the corporate conglomerate I had thought that organization to be, I found out that it is an agricultural cooperative owned by cranberry growers throughout North America.  The coop was formed in 1930 in Hanson by three cranberry growers led by lawyer and cranberry grower Marcus L. Urann. Today, there are about 700 members.

While much attention is paid to the disharmony in the world today, people have been cooperating to achieve goals that they could not accomplish alone since prehistoric men and women worked together as hunters and gatherers. Ancient Babylonians practiced cooperative farming and the Chinese developed savings and loan associations dating back centuries.  In 1752, American founding father Benjamin Franklin organized one of the early mutual insurance companies.

Welshman Robert Owen is considered the father of the modern cooperative movement.  In the 19th century, he applied humanitarian principles to empower workers in his cotton mills in Scotland, where the first co-operative store was opened. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was a group of 28 weavers and other artisans who came together in England in 1844.  They sought to collectively counter the challenges that the scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution created for skilled craftsmen.  The result was the development of the Rochdale Principles, an enduring model for co-ops.

It was on Cape Cod that commercial cultivation of the cranberry began.Farmer Henry Hall, the first known cultivator of cranberries, found inspiration in perceiving an unexpected phenomenon affecting his crop as an asset rather than a problem.  In 1816, when he started cranberry farming, he noticed the fruit was larger and juicier where a layer of sand from the Cape’s dunes blew over the vines. A successful technique was born that is still used today.

Beyond a sprinkling of sand dust, cranberries require a special set of circumstances to flourish–acid peat soil, fresh water, a long growing season stretching from April to November, and a dormant period in the winter months.  The beds that cranberries grow in are known as “bogs,” created eons ago by the movement of glaciers.  While we tromped around her property, Adrienne pointed out that the bogland also serves as a wildlife sanctuary, providing habitat for creatures such as the bald eagle, osprey, great blue heron, fox, deer and wild turkey.

Cranberry Bog Photo by A.D. Makepeace Ccompay

Cranberry Bog Photo by A.D. Makepeace Ccompay

Flax Pond Cranberry Co. of Carver employs the dry harvest technique — now used by only five percent of North American farms. Jack Angley, who with his wife, Dot, has owned the 100-acre farm since 1967, said dry harvest has a beauty of its own.

“It is only during dry harvesting that one can see the russet beauty of the turning vines and the colorful patterns created as the harvesting machines pass through the unpicked sections,’’ Angley said.

The term for cleaning and separating the fruit is called “screening,’’ and the Flax Pond property includes a screening house dating to the 1890s. Today the building serves as a museum and monument to cranberry history. Among the antiques on display is a 1926 Bailey separator, which sorts the good berries from the bad based on their “bounce,’’ and by size, which was an important factor in the price paid by brokers. The tiniest fruits were called “pie berries,’’ ones only a baker could love.

Cranberry Picking in Harwich, Massachusetts Photo from the Harwich Historical Society

Cranberry Picking in Harwich, Massachusetts Photo from the Harwich Historical Society

“God decreed cranberries do well here,’’ Angley said wryly. “We have the sand, swamps, and temperature that make the industry possible. The warmth and moisture provided by the proximity of the ocean prevents frost from being a big problem.’’

Picking, corralling, and loading are not in most leaf-peepers’ repertoires. But to experience a new way to see fall’s colors — head for the southeastern Massachusetts cranberry harvest.

The Hanson Family Farm in southeastern Massachusetts 

The Hanson Family Farm in southeastern Massachusetts 

Nestled among the towns between Carver and Harwich are more than 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs. October brings a brilliant crimson carpet from which rises the better-known seasonal skyline of gold, orange, and yellow.

For more than 25 years the bogs have inspired Gail Marie Nauen, a Carver resident and painter. 

“The tall pine trees provided the shade patterns on the floating pinks, reds, and peaches that make up the cranberry harvest,’’ Nauen said, recalling a recent scene. “Tomorrow, with another sunrise, the berries will take on a whole new look.’’

The harvest can often be seen from the side the road; the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association publishes a harvest route trail guide. But the bogs in their most vivid hues are a short-lived phenomenon.

Fortunately, you need not rely on the whims of Mother Nature or guess the harvest schedule. Venues exist that not only showcase the harvest, but also appeal to history buffs, bird-watchers, foodies, and festival-lovers.

The annual Cranberry Harvest Celebration is one. Held each Columbus Day weekend in Wareham at A.D. Makepeace Co., which sponsors the event with the growers association, the event features juried crafters and activities for children such as “make your own bog.’’ Local chefs put on culinary shows, using cranberries, of course. Last year, almost 20,000 visitors attended.

Makepeace, the world’s largest cranberry grower, has been cultivating cranberries since the 1800s. This fall it will harvest 1,590 of its nearly 2,000 acres. All of its bogs have names, many of them Native American. Wankinco is the largest bog at 75 acres and half-acre Jacoby is one of the smallest.

A highlight of the Harvest Celebration is a continuous display of the three-phase harvesting process of picking, corralling, and loading. Visitors can witness an impressive transformation as 10,000 pounds of cranberries are extracted from the fields over the course of the two-day event.

A machine with “beaters’’ knocks the berries off the vines after water has been added to a dry bog. An internal air chamber causes them to float to the surface, millions of the ripe red berries bobbing in the water.

Next, a crew garbed in wet-suit-like waders “corrals’’ all the berries with a boom, encircling the fruit and pulling it to one side of the bog. The berries are then suctioned through a hose up into a pump truck, where they are washed, then vacuumed up into a tractor trailer and shipped for processing.

The Hanson Family Farm in southeastern Massachusetts 

The Hanson Family Farm in southeastern Massachusetts 

The vast expanse of paved blacktop surrounding Patriot Place in Foxborough conceals a pristine preserve tucked beyond the concrete, where on a recent weekend a steady stream of young families and older dog-walkers enjoyed the half-mile nature trail.

Besides cranberries, the Patriot Place 32-acre wetland landscape includes plant life such as white water lily, wild celery, swamp white oak, and red maple. The wildlife include deer, foxes, great blue herons, and swans.

The crane, an elegant bird that once graced the bogs in greater numbers, is said to have inspired the fruit’s name: The shape of its head resembles the berry’s flower.

The history of all things cranberry is housed in the Harwich Historical Society Museum at Brooks Academy, located in a building that itself is a period piece. Displays chronicle settlers being taught by Native Americans to use the berry also as a dye and medicine, and document the world’s first commercial crop in 1846 by Captain Alvin Cahoon. He and others helped invest in commercial cranberry production, buying and developing low, swampy land previously thought to be worthless and growing an industry.

I have always loved the tart and tangy taste of cranberries.  Over time, my appreciation has grown for both the bitter and sweet in life, and my understanding has evolved that the threads of both are intertwined, like the submerged vines that support the vibrant, robust cranberries.  

Here’s to a tasty morsel of Yankee ingenuity that is sure to bejewel the landscape for some time to come.