One of only three fruits native to America that are commercially farmed (the others are blueberries and Concord grapes), cranberries are notoriously difficult to produce and manage high-quality, high-yield bogs that also work in harmony with the surrounding ecology.
Generally, cranberry bogs require tremendous amounts of freshwater for growing and harvesting while the wet low-lying nature of the cranberry bush makes the widespread use of fungicides, pesticides, and additional inputs a given.
So it was with a keen interest that we partnered with Cape Cod Select, a multi-generational sustainable cranberry grower out of Carver, Massachusetts, and took them up on their invitation to visit their bogs and see firsthand how they have pioneered water conservation and ecological responsibility in the traditional home of the cranberry industry.
Keeping Things Bee-Friendly
When I landed at Logan Airport late in the evening I had a slew of questions in my notes to ask my hosts about ranging from, "Why aren't you organic?" and "Where does your water come from and how do you deal with drought?" to "How much acreage do you manage and what is your annual yield?"
But foremost on my mind were my inquiries into the health of the bees. Bees LOVE cranberry bogs and in the springtime, you'll find most cranberry bogs are swarming with friendly honey bees.
This poses a conundrum for bee lovers in an industry that largely uses a tremendous amount of pesticides as well as herbicides and fungicides to manage their bogs.
When I asked fourth-generation cranberry farmer Patrick Rhodes of Cape Cod Select what their practices did to ensure the welfare of the bee population he assured me that they do everything possible to promote the successful proliferation of bee colonies for the compelling reason that without the bees there will be no cranberries.
Integrated Pest Management
Cape Cod Select is GobalGAP certified meaning that they adhere to a strict production methodology that in many ways surpasses US agricultural certifications and regulations. They also practice integrated pest management, a strategy that focuses on long-term prevention first and foremost, in their bogs with a priority of organic practices.
In the exceptional circumstances where they are required to utilize chemical inputs, it is a last line of defense, used sparingly well away from harvest season and their particular additive is bee-friendly.
I happened to meet and speak with Cape Cod Select's bee guru, Roger of the Franklin Honey Company, while we were out at the harvest. He was a wealth of knowledge about the bees and an avid fighter in the work against Colony Collapse Disorder.
Roger is particular about who he shares his bees with. He partners with Cape Cod Select because of their integrity to the ecology and the careful management of their bogs.
He left me confident that the bees in these bogs are likely some of the most well-managed hives in the entire country.
Cranberry farming is water-intensive work. It just is. Cranberries thrive in low wetlands and their tartness comes from the acidic peat moss that they leach through the sandy glacial deposits. Not only that, but during harvest season most farmers opt to flood their bogs to raise the cranberries up off the ground to be scooped more easily than the more traditional ground level dry harvesting.
If you can imagine a day stooped over plucking berries off the vines, let alone the entire harvest season year after year, then you can easily imagine why cranberry farmers opt to flood the bogs.
Cape Cod Select uses several ingenious methods to minimize their impacts on the local water supply whether it's a drought season or not. First, they have geometrically laid out all of their bogs so that they can move the same water from bog to bog. Plus they have laser leveled every single bog that they manage so that they can use the absolute minimum amount of water to cover the bogs.
Despite managing 250 acres of bogs and producing between 4-5 million pounds of cranberries annually, Cape Cod Select only floods one bog at a time for wet harvesting, and then they move the water over to the next parallel bog when finished. This assures that the water utilized by this farm is maximized and respected for purity because they use it over and over.
It's proven out that their water is healthy because they continually lab test it throughout the year but it's obvious to the observant eye in the abundance of wildlife that inhabits the farmland here from large frogs and blue herons to otters, foxes, and deer.
Another way that Cape Cod Select protects the water is that the majority of their harvest is dry harvested, meaning that the bogs are left unflooded.
This requires considerably more manual labor than the wet harvest technique which was only a 5-person operation including the truck driver but the conservation in water is worth it plus the local jobs it creates each harvest season is also an economic bonus to the community of Carver, Massachusetts.
Like an odd blend of a lawnmower and a combine, hand-driven devices are used to harvest berries from hugely long dry bogs. The machines scoop the berries off the vine and quickly fill a burlap sack full as it goes down the row.
The burlap sack is then placed off to the side where it is "lumped" by other workers into large crates that have been airlifted by helicopter onto the bogs. Then, once enough crates are full to fill a large flatbed truck, the same helicopter then returns to offload the cranberries to the truck which sits off of the bog.
The helicopter and smaller machines are necessary because they protect the stability of the fragile bog which is largely sand with peat moss underneath. If these bogs are protected and managed well they will produce cranberries for hundreds of years, much like heirloom olive groves.
A Zero-Waste Operation
The processing facility of the Cape Cod Select bogs is on par with other world-class facilities that we have toured. They have an immaculate factory floor.
There is a top-of-the-line cranberry sorter that sorts thousands of cranberries a minute for size, color, and firmness. Any cranberries that are kicked out by the machine are reserved and sold to third-party processors. All the vine twigs, stems, and leaves that are removed in the cleaning process are reserved and composted.
Cape Cod Select also features enough solar panels on their property to offset their farm's annual electric use.
When people ask me what I do for work I truthfully respond that we network with all of the best food producers in the world. I assured the Rhodes family over dinner after my day on the farm that they have absolutely earned their place among this echelon and they inspired me to seek out more ways to incorporate cranberries from their farm into our regular recipe planning.