Many of us in Massachusetts, especially in Middlesex County, are familiar with the sights of apple orchards, and have even gone apple-picking. It’s a long-standing part of our agricultural heritage that we enjoy sharing with our children or friends. Although cranberries are found on our Thanksgiving tables as often as apple pie, fewer of us are familiar with the sights of cranberry bogs and harvesting. These are more common to those who visit Cape Cod, where many of the state’s cranberries are grown.
I read about a cranberry festival (possibly the last one) to be held at A.D. Makepeace, the largest grower of cranberries in the world. We made the trek to Wareham to visit the festival.
There are two methods of harvesting cranberries. Dry harvesting is done with a wide machine that resembles a mower. Rather than a rotary blade it has large moving teeth that rake the berries onto a conveyor that feeds into a box or burlap bag. This method of harvest is used for the fresh berries we can buy in grocery stores. The cranberry plants must be completely dry for this method.
We saw wet harvesting at the cranberry festival. Wet harvested berries account for about 90% of cranberries harvested. These berries are sent to processors to make juice, cranberry sauces and jellies, and sweetened dried cranberries.
For this process, the cranberry bogs are flooded the night before the harvest with as much as 18 inches of water. The following day, water reels (also called ‘egg beaters’) loosen the berries from the plants, and they float to the surface of the water. Wooden or plastic booms are used to corral the berries while workers also use broom or rake-like tools to move the boom or berries. Once the berries are corralled they are suctioned out of the bog and fed through a separator to remove leaves and twigs from the berries.
Although many cranberries are not grown organically, many of the farmers do use integrated pest management (IPM) practices. According to our tour guide, a young woman who is part of the family that owns A.D. Makepeace, simple economics encourages them to use as few pesticides as possible and to turn first to other methods of pest control. The winter moth, which is destructive to so many woody plants on Cape Cod, is also a major pest of the cranberry. This grower watches the brush lining their fields, and knows what plants are starting to leaf out when the larva are hatching. At that time, they flood their fields to kill the winter moth larva. Once that is accomplished, they drain the fields to allow the plants and their fruit to grow through the rest of the growing season. This is a less expensive and more environmentally sound way to control this damaging pest.
This year, our Thanksgiving table will include cranberry sauce and a cranberry-apple tart made with berries that we purchased at this festival. Understanding more about the harvesting process will enhance our enjoyment of these dishes.