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Crimson tide

Cranberry growers, ready to celebrate harvest, hoping for a bountiful crop

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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Cranberries are quintessential Southeastern Massachusetts, the region’s symbol.

Steve Dunwell, a Boston-based photographer, knows this. He wasn’t completely surprised when his 1992 photograph of a Carver cranberry bog was chosen recently by the US Postal Service to be featured on a postage stamp next year.

“We don’t have many distinctive regional products,’’ said Dunwell. “It’s really something that’s distinctive to this area.’’

Cranberry farming originated on Cape Cod in the 19th century, and today, the fruit is still the number one food crop in Massachusetts. The Bay State is the second-biggest cranberry producer in the United States, ranking behind only Wisconsin.

And now it’s harvest time, and this region’s growers are hoping for a bountiful crop. They’re also getting ready for their biggest festival of the year, scheduled for Columbus Day weekend: the eighth annual Cranberry Harvest Celebration in Wareham.

Described as an “old-fashioned family festival’’ that celebrates the region’s signature dark-red fruit, the event is hosted by the Carver-based Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, one of the oldest farmer organizations in the country (established 1888), and Wareham-based A.D. Makepeace Co., the world’s largest cranberry grower. The event will feature food vendors, cooking demonstrations, face-painting, pony rides, and tours of working cranberry bogs. It will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 8 and 9, rain or shine, and promises to be a visual treat.

“The harvest is really beautiful and picturesque to see,’’ said Linda Burke, spokeswoman for A.D. Makepeace Co.

As the largest private property owner in the state, the company doesn’t want people roaming its land all the time. “It’s hard for a small staff to police the perimeter here,’’ said Burke. The harvest celebration, she went on, is “a way to welcome people onto the property’’ and view some of the working cranberry bogs under controlled circumstances. And many people take advantage of the opportunity: last year, approximately 24,000 attended.

A.D. Makepeace has a long history in the area: The company got into the cranberry business in the 1800s, when founder Abel D. Makepeace - a.k.a “The Cranberry King’’ - established bogs across hundreds of acres in Southeastern Massachusetts. Today, the company continues to farm approximately 1,750 acres in Carver, Middleborough, Plymouth, Rochester, and Wareham.

Massachusetts was once the top cranberry producer in the United States, until the 1970s. Even though Wisconsin has taken the top spot, the industry in Massachusetts has held steady, and local growers are harvesting more fruit. In 1972, Massachusetts produced 819,000 barrels of cranberries from 10,900 acres; in 2010, the state produced more than double that amount - 1,891,000 barrels - from 13,000 acres, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Massachusetts yields have generally been lower than in other states because of the age of the vines and varieties traditionally grown here. Some farmers have vines that are more than 100 years old. The older “heritage’’ varieties typically yield 80 to 150 barrels per acre, while newer varieties can yield up to 400 barrels per acre, according to Dawn Gates-Allen, spokeswoman for the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association and a fourth-generation grower in Rochester and Freetown.

The fruit grows on low-lying vines. In the wintertime, cranberry farmers flood their bogs with water, so it can freeze and insulate the vines. When spring arrives and the weather warms up, the ice melts. The bogs are drained, and soon pink blossoms begin to sprout. By mid-summer, the petals fall, and the tiny green bulbs that are left ripen and turn red in the warm summer sun.

The berries are harvested once a year in the early fall, usually between mid-September and early November. The farmers flood the bogs with water. The cranberries, which contain little air-filled pockets, float. Farmers use booms to corral the berries, which are then lifted out of the bog and into trucks, to be taken to a processing plant.

The outlook is looking good for cranberry production this year. The USDA forecasts that production will be up in Massachusetts, to as much as 2.1 million barrels.

Growers like Gates-Allen hope those forecasts are right, but they won’t know for sure until all of their fruit is harvested, weighed, and recorded.

Gates-Allen is concerned about her early varieties - the ones that just got picked. “The biggest challenge is that we had so much rain this summer - we’re all concerned about having good quality,’’ she said. She said she noticed a few rotted berries going into the trash truck - likely victims of too much rain and humidity.

As far as the other varieties go, she said, “everything looks great.’’

She’s crossing her fingers for conducive weather this week. “We’re praying for cold weather because we want good color on our cranberries,’’ she said. “We rely on Mother Nature to bring out the intense crimson color.’’

Gates-Allen said color is important because when people think cranberry, they think red - that bold, intense crimson shade that gives cranberry juice and cranberry sauce its distinctive color.

Consumer demand for cranberry products has remained steady, she said. But like most other businesspeople, she said, cranberry growers are concerned about sales and rising fuel costs.

“I think the [consumer] demand has remained level,’’ she said. “Essentially, we’re in a tough economy. As a farmer, as a mother, and as a consumer shopper, I have to be careful of how I spend my money.’’

Cranberries are being used in new ways - dried and sweetened cranberries have become popular as snacks and in salads, and there is the emerging “nutraceutical’’ market that is based solely around the health benefits of the fruit, which can be used to make vitamins and other nutritional supplements.

Farmers are also learning to produce more, thanks to the efforts of the UMass Cranberry Station, a University of Massachusetts research facility in East Wareham. It provides the local cranberry industry with the latest information on fertilizer, weed and pest management, plant nutrient needs, and other scientific aspects of farming.

“We’re very technology driven,’’ said Gates-Allen, who uses computer software to control the irrigation of her cranberry bogs. “That didn’t happen with my great-grandmother or grandfather. We’ve come a long way.’’

Gates-Allen said she’s looking forward to the harvest celebration next weekend.

“It’s a tradition,’’ she said. “And it’s nice to be able to meet with the public and share our stories and experiences as cranberry farmers.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

Fruit facts
400 approximate number
of Massachusetts growers
5,000 number of people
employed in the industry
13,000 number of acres harvested in 2010
1.89 million barrels total production in 2010 (2 percent above 2009’s production level)
145.5 barrels per acre - average yield
Biggest cranberry
producing states, in acres harvested in 2010
18,000 Wisconsin
13,000 Massachusetts
3,100 New Jersey
2,700 Oregon
1,700 Washington
Sources: US Department of Agriculture; Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association
Cranberry Harvest Celebration
Oct. 8-9, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A.D. Makepeace Co., Tihonet Village,
158 Tihonet Road, Wareham.
$5 adults, $3 seniors. Children under 7 free.
www.cranberryharvest.org.