Cranberries: biography of the state’s signature fruit

Colleague and fellow folklorist Millie Rahn brings us this guest blog:

Steve Cole was introduced to cranberry growing through his great uncle, who spent a lifetime in agriculture in southeastern Massachusetts. There, Steve writes, he learned about the local crop “via an irrigation system that needed installation.” He adds, “For some, the cranberry has provided a comfortable living for five generations; for others, only enough money to make it through each winter. When something so dominates the lives of people, it is worth knowing about.”

Steve and his wife, photographer Lindy Gifford, are the authors of The Cranberry: Hard Work and Holiday Sauce, just published by Tilbury House Publishers in Maine. Steve and Lindy did much of their research in the early 1980s, while living in Wareham, near where Steve grew up. The book is based on interviews with cranberry growers in Plymouth County and Cape Cod, as well as extensive historical research. It is illustrated with contemporary and historical photographs and documents drawn, in many cases, from archival collections throughout Massachusetts.

Steve and Lindy recently held a launch party and book signing at the Ansel Gurney House in Marion, and also appeared in the book tent at the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford, which this year featured discussion of issues shared by fishermen and farmers.

Photo (l to r): Cranberry grower Wilho Harju, author Stephen Cole, Lillian Harju, and author Lindy Gifford at the book launch in Marion in late September. Wilho and Lillian Harju were among those interviewed about Finnish people’s contributions to cranberry growing. Photo by Phoebe Cole.

The authors will be signing their book throughout the fall, including the following dates and locations:

Saturday, October 10, 11 am

Cranberry Harvest Celebration at A.D. Makepeace Co. headquarters

Tihonet Village, Wareham

Saturday afternoon, November 7

Titcomb Books on Route 6A in East Sandwich

Sunday, November 8, Noon-2 pm

Where the Sidewalk Ends Bookstore on Main Street in Chatham.

More dates will follow at Plimoth Plantation, and in Boston and Concord.

Harvesting Cranberries: From the Archive

Cranberries being unloaded.

Ever wonder where your OceanSpray cranberry juice comes from? This is a good time of year to find out. Cold weather ripens the cranberries, to make nice dark fruit. Commercial buyers pay a bonus for dark colored fruit. But for cranberry farmers in southeastern Massachusetts, there is a fine balance between cold weather and frost. So the Cape Cod Growers Association issues a frost report.

Cranberries growing in low lying bogs have to be harvested before the first frost comes. Back in October 2000, we visited the Gilmore Cranberry Company bog in South Carver, just after it had been flooded and picked. Susan Gilmore was our guide bogside, while her husband Ben Gilmore worked along with two day laborers from New Bedford.

Cranberry harvest in Lakeville, Massachusetts. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

The berries had been swept to one side of the bog by the wind and then carrolled with “booms.” A tow line with floatation was hooked to the end of the boom; pulling it “corralled” the berries. A hose sucked the berries up along with some water into the truck. The berries were “detrashed” — washed and separated from the chaff and trash. The latter is used for mulch. The clean berries were then loaded into a truck.

Ben Carver walking in bog during wet harvest. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

Ben Gilmore has donned his waders to help corral the remaining berries. Once the truck was loaded with berries, Ben drove it to the Oceanspray receiving station a few miles away. A few trucks were in line ahead of us. We got permission from an employee in the control house to observe — this is a restricted area. Once on a lift, the truck tilts up to a 90 degree angle, forcing the berries against the back of the truck. A small opening allows the berries spill out — it sounds like a giant rain stike. Once dumped, the load passes by a blower to remove leaves, then is fed onto a conveyor belt into another bin for a final wash to remove the bad fruit and leaves.

Cranberries being unloaded at Oceanspray receiving station. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

And so goes a “wet” harvest of cranberries. The majority of cranberries are harvested this way and will be used for processed food — the juices and sauces. A dry harvest is used for the fresh fruit market and is much more labor intensive. That market is from November to December; the berries don’t keep.

Listen to WBUR’s Robin Young talk with Maggie about her visit to the bog.

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg.

Have a comment? Send me an email: maggie.holtzberg@state.ma.us