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Berried treasures

As harvesting season hits its stride, a region celebrates its ocean of red

At Flax Pond Cranberry Co., in Carver, Dot Angley empties a bag of dry-harvested berries into a sorter that separates the chaff from the fruit. At Flax Pond Cranberry Co., in Carver, Dot Angley empties a bag of dry-harvested berries into a sorter that separates the chaff from the fruit. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / October 4, 2009

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CARVER - With the flick of a switch, a huge wooden machine that almost scrapes the ceiling springs to life at the Flax Pond Cranberry Co., carrying cratefuls of bright berries up a conveyer belt to judgment day as it did for generations here in Southeastern Massachusetts.

And while the 130-year-old machine is no longer in regular use - more modern equipment does the job now - Dot Angley uses it to illustrate the careful process by which berries make the grade for consumption or are relegated to some other use.

“A good cranberry will bounce,’’ said Angley, who with her husband, Jack, a longtime town selectman, farms 100 acres of bountiful bogs at the end of a dirt lane off Pond Street.

During the fall harvest, now just picking up steam, the couple work around the clock with their children, grandchildren, and a crew of about a dozen workers to get the berries in.

This is also the time of year when the area will be inundated with visitors, many of whom will be here next weekend for the 6th Annual Cranberry Harvest Festival in Wareham, hosted by the A.D. Makepeace Co. and the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association - and the competing National Cranberry Festival at Edaville Railroad in Carver.

The festival at the Makepeace property on Tihonet Road in Wareham will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday and feature crafters, cooking demonstrations, and a guided tour of a working cranberry bog. Last year, the event drew some 12,000 people from around the world. The Edaville event, also an attraction for locals and travelers alike, has amusement rides and a train tour through an 1,800-acre bog. It runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. next Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and will feature fireworks at 8 p.m. on Saturday.

But growers around the region won’t be quite ready to celebrate a good year until all the berries are picked.

Last month, the US Department of Agriculture predicted that the nation’s cranberry crop will bring in 7.09 million barrels this year, down 10 percent from 2008. Despite the decrease, the harvest will still be the second-largest production on record, the USDA said, after a banner season last year.

In Massachusetts, the second top-producing state after Wisconsin, an expected yield of 1.9 million barrels will be down 20 percent from last year, because of cooler temperatures, above average rainfall, and late spring frosts, according to the USDA.

For the Angleys, the yield in a good year is around 150 to 200 barrels. Work goes on, rain or no rain, sun or no sun, explained Dot, a cranberry cookbook author who also runs the family farm store.

“We live and die by the weather around here,’’ she said. “But all of Mother Nature is a double-edged sword. Too much is bad. But so is too little.’’

For centuries, the low-growing fruit has thrived in harsh conditions in impermeable beds layered with sand, clay, peat, and gravel and carved by glacial deposits. It has proved its worth not just as a traditional companion to turkey dinner, but also as an agent in healing, nutrition, and fashion.

Early Native Americans crushed the tart berries into poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds. They mixed the berry, rich in vitamin C and loaded with antioxidants, with venison for survival food. And richly hued juices were strained and used to dye clothing and blankets.

Dubbed “ibimi,’’ or bitter berry, by the Cape Cod Pequots and the South Jersey Leni-Lenape tribes, the cranberry first approximated its modern name when the early German and Dutch settlers called it “crane berry’’ because its flower resembled the head and bill of a crane.

Today, about 700 farmers in five states harvest approximately 40,000 acres of cranberries annually. Most growers sell their crops to Ocean Spray Cranberries, an agricultural cooperative headquartered on the Lakeville-Middleborough line.

Since last year, an effort to designate the primary cranberry-growing grounds southeast of Boston as the state’s first agricultural heritage area has slowed.

The move was meant to draw more tourism to the picturesque region while boosting cranberry-related businesses, from wineries to bed-and-breakfasts. But though the Legislature passed a bill to establish a Cranberry Heritage Commission to study the idea, no members were ever appointed to it.

“There are so many budget issues; the global recession just put everything off to the side,’’ said Dawn Gates Allen, spokeswoman for the Wareham-based Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, established in 1888.

Gates Allen is a member of a five-generation cranberry family that owns 100 acres of bogs in Freetown, Halifax, Rochester, and Middleborough.

She works overtime to promote her passion, including an appearance on the Food Network, where she lured “Will Work for Food’’ star Adam Gertler to her Rochester home for a grueling two-day “cranberry boot camp’’ episode that aired recently. Gertler was up to his armpits in waders out in the bog, putting out sprinklers and doing other cranberry grunt work, she said. “We had a great time.’’

Although harvesting is in its early stages, and fall foliage has yet to peak, visitors are already scouring the highways and byways of southeastern Massachusetts hoping for a peek at the scenic, centuries-old spectacle.

At the Angleys’ place, curious travelers from as far away as Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands have stopped by in recent days. And on a recent afternoon, Steve and Janna Ward of Fort Myers, Fla., felt at home on the long sandy path to the bogs as the picking progressed under a broiling sun.

In the “dry’’ harvesting method, workers push a large lawnmower-like machine in even squares around the bog, forcing the berries up a conveyer into large burlap bags. The crew periodically stops the machines to empty the bags into collection bins that are soon brimming with the red fruit.

Janna Ward tried not to appear disappointed as she watched the progress, but it soon overcame her: “It’s really interesting, but where is the water? It doesn’t look like the commercial.’’

Like many people, the Wards expected the mass of berries to be corralled in flooded bogs. They learned that just as many growers use the dry technique.

“All I really care about is how many cranberries are on my Thanksgiving table,’’ Steve Ward confided, as the couple wandered back to their car.

The region’s cranberry history is particularly cherished by those who have grown up here amid the changing face of the bogs, from the tender green of spring to the dark maroon of winter dormancy.

Ed and Yolanda Lodi, who own Middleborough’s Rock Village Publishing, have just produced a book of essays on cranberry heritage to celebrate their first 10 years in the business.

“Cranberry Memories: Voices From the Bogs’’ contains 29 essays by local authors, many of them first-time writers, whose lives and families are rooted in the local industry.

From childhood memories to recipes and farming techniques passed through the generations, the book tells intimate family stories about life in bogs in Wareham, Carver, Middleborough, Rochester, Marion, Yarmouth, Dennis, Duxbury, Mattapoisett, Acushnet, and Plymouth, Ed Lodi said.

Raised on a family bog in Wareham, Lodi researches spiritual lore and writes suspense fiction often focused on the bogs of his youth. “It’s hard to sum up what they mean to me,’’ he said.

Bogs help preserve the natural environment, he said. They reflect the changing seasons and are a source of income for many. Yet they are also a soulful staple of the regional landscape, something that is basic, wild, and steadfast.

In the ethereal glow of a frost, bogs can be inspirational, eerie, and mysterious, Lodi said.

It’s that mystery that is a timeless lure, said Gates Allen. And what keeps farmers in the game.

“You know, if the crop is going to be down, as they’ve predicted, we have such an inventory carry-over, it’s not going to be a problem,’’ she said. “Last year was so huge that even 20 percent down will keep us in balance.’’

A cranberry crop is famous for keeping its grower guessing, she said: “You water your berries, you see them on the vines, and you think, ‘Thank God, I have a great crop.’ But until you see them weighed and on the truck, you just don’t know.’’

For more information on the festivals next weekend, go to http://www.admakepeace.com and http://www.edaville.com. Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

Cranberry production, in barrels

Massachusetts

2005 1,423,000

2006 1,886,000

2007 1,522,000

2008 2,374,000

2009 1,900,000*

United States

2005 6,243,000

2006 6,890,000

2007 6,554,000

2008 7,865,000

2009 7,085,000*

*Estimated

Source: USDA