The Cape's Cranberry Growing Legacy
The trees had just begun to turn color in mid-October as Dave Ross walked along the grassy ridge surrounding his cranberry bog in East Sandwich. The bog is reached by way of a rutty sand road, accessed by an unmarked turn-off from a quiet country lane. As with many of the Cape’s working cranberry bogs, Ross’ bog occupies a secluded spot hidden from public view. It’s profoundly peaceful, yet teeming with birds and other wildlife. The annual harvest, in particular, is a fascinating process to behold, as the vivid, red berries surface in flooded bogs under the cobalt skies of autumn. Perhaps because they seem so half-wild, so un-cultivated, cranberry bogs are among the most beautiful of agricultural landscapes.
Ross calls himself a wash-ashore, though he’s been a cranberry grower on Cape Cod for more than 20 years, and produces anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of berries per year, depending on his yield. He is extremely well read on the subject of cranberry cultivation, its history and its future. On an Indian summer afternoon last fall, he shared with me a wealth of information about what shapes the lives and livelihoods of those people who carry on the tradition of cranberry farming on Cape Cod.
Long before the Europeans arrived in North America, Native Americans used cranberries as a food and for medicinal purposes. They pulverized the berries and mixed them with venison to make a nutritious stew called “pemmicana,” and made poultices with cranberries as a remedy for open wounds, a treatment that may well have been a deterrent to the growth of harmful bacteria. Native Americans, says Ross, did not cultivate cranberries but, instead, gathered them from the Cape’s wild bogs, which occurred in recesses in the landscape where soil, sand and weather conditions were naturally conducive to berry growth.
When Europeans arrived on Cape Cod, the Native Americans shared their knowledge of the cranberry with them and, eventually, the Europeans made early attempts at cultivation. In 1816, the bogs owned by Captain Henry Hall in Dennis were covered in sand after a storm that brought torrential winds and rain. Months later, to Hall’s surprise, the yield of berries from that bog was significantly better than those from previous years, thus, the benefits of mixing sand with bog soil to achieve the right acidic balance for cranberry cultivation was discovered quite by accident.
The Cape’s early sea captains, like Henry Hall, had a particular interest in cranberry production: they learned that cranberries prevented scurvy, so they took large stores of them on their ships during long sea voyages. Cranberry production on Cape Cod was, from the beginning, intertwined with the Cape’s seafaring history, as ship’s captains became cranberry growers as a sideline.
Ross emphasizes the important point that cranberries are a winter fruit, North America’s only native winter fruit, in fact. For the Cape’s early inhabitants, there were few other sources of natural vitamin C, thus cranberries played a critical nutritional role in their diets. To current growers, the nutritional value associated with cranberries is as critical a factor today as it was two centuries ago.
In the last couple of years, says Ross, representatives from pharmaceutical companies, including some from Canada, have entered the picture, traveling to Cape Cod to meet with local growers in order to negotiate bids on their crops. The companies will use the berries to manufacture much in-demand dietary supplements containing high levels of antioxidants.
Currently, by far the bulk of the cranberries grown on Cape Cod are sold to Ocean Spray, the well-known corporate entity first established as a growers’ collective in 1930. Dave Ross says that 98 percent of his crop goes directly to Ocean Spray. For many years, Ocean Spray marketed cranberries mostly as juice and in juice blends, or as a seasonal, holiday food but, in the 1990s, they developed the sweetened dried cranberry [trademark name, craisinsTM] as a new, year-round staple ingredient for the American pantry. The demand for“craisins,” and other cranberry-based foods, reached unprecedented heights.
One of the challenges for Ocean Spray, says Ross, has been the debate about how best to market the cranberry. Touting its nutritional value (high in both vitamin C and calcium) appeals to some consumers, but it may also be a turn-off, sounding too much like the kind of medicinal approach to advertising associated with prune juice. On the other hand, claims about health benefits that have yet to be proven in the laboratory could pose legal problems for the company. As a result, Ocean Spray has taken a careful tack, making nutritional claims based only on well-established science, while only suggesting that there could also be powerful health benefits associated with the cranberry’s high antioxidant content. One of these is the idea that cranberries “cleanse” the system, fighting off the bacteria that can cause harm to the urinary tract, and to tooth and gum tissue, a notion that harks back to the long-held beliefs of Native Americans about the cranberry’s healing powers.
The on-going effort to make cranberries a more delicious and versatile food, now promoted internationally, combined with their use as a source of potent vitamins and antioxidants, indicates that the market for them is likely to continue to grow. As a result, says Ross, new hybrid strains of cranberries are being developed.
Doug Beaton, a fifth generation cranberry grower, recently renovated his Discovery Hill Bog, located on Route 6A in East Sandwich. The old bog had been a working bog, Beaton estimates, for 160 years. In the spring of 2008, it was excavated and leveled, and re-planted with new, hybrid berry bushes. By 2010, says Beaton, the plants will produce three times the yield of the old bog. He also predicts that the new berries will taste better.
Cranberries remain the state’s number one agricultural crop, but many other states, including Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, even Oregon and Washington, to name a few, are now viable producers. In the southern hemisphere, Chile has become a cranberry producer and exporter. Dave Ross says that, at one time, as many as 3,000 acres of land on Cape Cod were used for cranberry cultivation. Today, that number has declined to about 1,000 acres. The local growers willingness and ability to invest in the new, more profitable hybrid berry plants may determine the future of the cranberry growing tradition on Cape Cod.
Most of the Cape’s cranberry farmers run small operations of fewer than 20 acres. Crop yields and crop revenues are always unpredictable, and many growers must hold down second jobs. Still, as Dave Ross says, for many, cranberry farming “gets into the blood.” Maintaining the bogs throughout the year, along with the excitement and rush of work during the annual harvest, he says, make it a rewarding enterprise and part of an historic agricultural legacy, as well.
For more information, visit the website of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association.