America’s Superfruit: Growing and Harvesting Cranberries in North America

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Growing cranberries has been a crucial part of North Americans’ lives over the centuries. They have provided food and nourishment, and have also warded off various cancers.
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In "America's Founding Fruit," Susan Playfair examines the cranberry, one of three cultivated fruits that are native to North America, tracing its history, origins and importance through the centuries, and then explores how it will handle present day's warming climate.

The cranberry is one of only three cultivated fruits native to North America, and how it will fare in the future is uncertain. In America’s Founding Fruit(University Press of New England, 2014), author Susan Playfair poses the question of how cranberries and other fruits will fare in a warming climate, interviewing and speaking with growers, harvesters and experts across the United States and North America. This excerpt, which provides a look at the history of Americans growing and harvesting cranberries until present day, is from Chapter 1, “A Perfect Design.”

Growing Cranberries

In North America, if you drive past the Mayflower Lanes, Whippoorwill Paths, Beaver Dam Roads, and Honeysuckle Ways that have been created to provide frontage for newly built homes in Massachusetts’s Plymouth County, Wisconsin’s Wood County, New Jersey’s Suffolk County, or Washington’s Skagit County, you may spot a sandy road leading through underbrush. Follow it and you could find yourself in a world dedicated to growing and harvesting a small, red berry with a big role in the history and culture of the United States.

This is the little berry that kept both Native Americans and Pilgrims alive through the winter months, was considered “the choicest product of the colony” when presented to King Charles in 1677, served as Benjamin Franklin’s cure for homesickness in 1769, protected sailors on whaling ships from scurvy, was served to General Grant’s men in 1864, provided over a million pounds per year of fruit to our World War II doughboys, has been a staple served at countless Thanksgivings, and is currently warding off various cancers. This is America’s superfruit.

Early settlers called it a “craneberry” because its flower, angled head on upright stem, reminded them of the cranes who shared the earth and sky with them. We call it a cranberry. It is one of only three cultivated fruit native to North America. Blueberries and Concord grapes are the others. Partly because of its longer shelf life and thick waxy skin, the cranberry has the most flexibility. It can be boiled in sauces, baked in a pie, frozen in sorbet, dried in cereals or salads, pulverized in capsules, and even served smoked. A fresh cranberry can be taken out of the freezer after three years and added to your favorite muffin recipe, with no loss to the flavor or texture.

For me, cranberries always have meant the Federal Furnace Road in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Whenever I drive beneath its allée of fir trees, my anticipation begins to increase, and I wonder if the vines have changed color, if the bogs have been flooded, if the sprinklers have begun spraying water to ward off frost. Above all, I want to feel that sense of assurance that the four seasons still lend themselves to the growth of a small, red berry much as they did in the days when my great-grandparents farmed cranberries, as did their parents and grandparents. I, like so many others, seek the permanency and continuity that cranberry bogs have afforded for so long.

Interlocking branches form a canopy overhead to funnel me through the woods. Suddenly they separate to reveal an azure sky and a cranberry bog ripe for harvesting, horizontal sheets of deep red stretching before me. To my right is a graying wood screen house, as much a part of local history as the bleached bones of a prehistoric mammal are to our larger history. These buildings were where the cranberries were separated by hand and packed in wooden boxes for shipment, before Ocean Spray and the larger independent handlers took over the job of processing. Downhill from the screen house, Piney Woods, one of the oldest cranberry bogs still being harvested, nestles beneath hemlock and stately pines, its three acres just fitting the “S” curve of the road.

The temperature reads seventy-three degrees. Morning clouds have disappeared to allow the sun to highlight a wash of red berries on indigo blue water. The berries are Early Blacks, the first variety to ripen each fall, and Piney Woods is one of the first cranberry bogs to be harvested this year.

Before the sun rose above the trees, Rob Beaton and his foreman, Israel Cordero, flooded the bog and drove partly submerged water-reel harvesters, known as “water beaters,” across it to loosen the ripe berries and allow them to float to the surface. Now Kenny Higgins, one of the Beaton crew, pulls a black line of plastic through the water to corral the berries and guide them toward the Beaton family’s new pump machine. Kenny’s short, wiry build in a wet suit visually extends the floating black line. At the far end of the bog, Mak Song and May Lee, two seasonal workers originally from Cambodia, rake berries into the corral and away from the edge.

Cranberry History

Since the berry was first cultivated in 1816, cranberry bogs have provided a means for waves of immigrants to get a foothold in this country. Italians followed Finns. Portuguese from Cape Verde followed the Italians. Frederick Swift, a Cape Cod bog owner, wrote in his journal on Tuesday, April 10, 1900, “Four or five Portuguese came today & I put them in Parker House.” The following day’s entry reads, “Russ, Charlie & four Portuguese & FKS [Frederick K. Swift] cut 35 bags [of] vines today. I made 10 hrs.”

The earliest cultivators of cranberries were the settlers who had emigrated from England, in some cases via Holland. Most of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century immigrants employed by the new bog owners had been farmers in their own countries. They had come from rural towns, where they understood hard physical labor and were willing to trade that for the chance to work outside and, at least temporarily, move out of their crowded tenements in Boston, Lawrence, Brockton, and New Bedford, the mill towns that claimed so many who had moved to the cities. They and their families were given “bog shanties” to live in during the best months of the year, from planting to harvest. And the pay was good. For the bog owners, recent immigrants were willing to work hard, share accommodations, and provide cheap, needed labor. At the end of the season, they were also expendable.

Thanks to the Resettlement and Reintegration Program, an international effort whose objectives include poverty alleviation and the regeneration of civil society, Mak, May, and some of their fellow Cambodian farmers are part of the latest ethnic group to work the American cranberry bogs. As the men gradually move the floating berries into an ever-smaller circle, their laughter and the lilt of a song from their birth country float across to me from the other side of the bog.

Harvesting Cranberries

Mating dragonflies cavort overhead. Frogs squeak as they leap from their recently submerged homes into the water or skitter across a sea of berries. Passing drivers park along the edge of the road and exit their cars, cameras in hand, to record a symbolic cranberry harvest on the first day of fall. They raise their eyes from viewfinders long enough to register a blue, sixteen-wheel transport truck backing down a sandy incline alongside the bog’s pump machine.

After positioning the truck’s bed under the machine’s overhanging chute, Bruce Taylor jumps down from the cab and looks at the red circle of cranberries corralled on the Piney Woods bog. He places his bet, an annual wager with Israel, at 350 barrels (35,000 pounds). Israel, “Papo” to his crew, looks wistfully at the results of his efforts for the past year. His lips compress. His message: “maybe.” He shrugs his shoulders, raising the upper half of the one-piece wet suit he is wearing. “These vines, they’re close to a hundred years old. They’ve given us a lot of berries over the years.”

Kenny drags a metal funnel and hose through the water, finally placing the funnel at the spot where it can best deliver the berries to the pump machine. When the optimum position has been established, Mak and another man pound in four metal stakes, one at each corner of the funnel to indicate its location below the surface. After checking their placement of the funnel, Israel ascends blue metal scaffolding to the controls for the new machine, then pulls several shiny levers. With a gushing sound, berries begin to be sucked in between the four stakes, then spit out at the top of the machine where spigots release a spray of water to clean them. The good berries slide down a grated chute into the front end of Bruce’s truck box. Weeds and other debris are funneled into a small pickup truck ahead of the machine. A second hose spews clean, filtered water back to the bog.

The new machine cost close to $200,000. “But,” Israel tells me, “it will pay for itself in four or five years, because Ocean Spray pays more for clean berries.” He then climbs higher to the top of the scaffolding, where he cleans extra weeds away from the water spigots and checks the level of the berries in the truck. Berries are now mounded higher than the truck’s sides. Israel has judged the timing so that not one berry has spilled over. From his perch, he motions for Bruce to move the truck forward, allowing the rest of the berries to flow to the back of the truck.

On the bog, Mac slowly pulls the plastic boom to tighten the diminishing circle of red while Kenny continues to rake berries toward the suction point. The circle of berries is shrinking as the blue of the water is growing. An apprehensive Bruce looks at the red shape, then back toward the truck where berries continue to spew into the box. His earlier bet is beginning to look on the low side. As Bruce ponders his estimate, a light breeze riffles the surface of the flooded bog and sends a sweet brackish smell our way.

The last berries are siphoned off the bog and the truck is completely full. Bruce starts the engine and backs out, heading for Ocean Spray’s satellite processing center, a few miles down the road. He is transporting one of the earliest harvests. And he picked the right day. There is only one other truck ahead of him in line. “Tomorrow, next day,” Bruce tells me, “trucks will be three deep. You can wait an hour or two in line here.” He drives the truck onto a weighing scale built into the road and jumps out to handle the paperwork.

Inside the delivery station, Joe Dutro, the manager, sits at a window scanning a computer displaying the contents of Bruce’s truck. Outside, scaffolding leads to the spotters’ vantage point, where a man and woman check for the color, cleanliness, size, and condition of the berries in the truck before determining their value.

Whoosh! A hydraulic probe appears and insinuates itself into the mass of berries, where it sucks up random samples, then deposits them into white buckets to be further scrutinized. A second probe dives into a different section of berries as two more trucks pull into the queue.

The load weighed and sampled, Bruce heads up the hill to the processing plant to wait for a go-ahead from an Ocean Spray employee. High above the truck, elevated conveyors transport berries to be washed and cleaned. Then an arm reaches out a window to display a card with “No. 2” written on it. In our digital age, this act seems like a time warp.

Bruce pulls forward and prepares to back into the No. 2 aisle. After expertly backing the truck straight down the middle lane of three, he hops out to disengage what he refers to as the “landing gear” before covering the remaining distance. Berries slide out the raised back of the truck and down into a hopper to be fed onto one of the metal elevated conveyors, then moved to another bath and transported inside, where they will be inspected, sorted, bagged, and labeled or processed for juice.

From the moment we left the queue at the entrance, the berries in Bruce’s truck were systematically cataloged with the time and date and the bog where they originated. Each bottle of juice or bag of fresh berries available to the consumer from a grocery store shelf can be tracked to this one particular batch of berries from this one particular cranberry bog. In the event of any tainted item bearing an Ocean Spray label, the source of contamination can be easily traced.

Bruce pulls a lever to lower the truck box, then climbs back up into the cab. At the loading station, he parks the now-empty truck on the exit scale. Then he goes inside to get the paperwork and to find out how close his initial estimate was. The final count: 44,160 pounds, or 441 to 442 barrels. For a year where it rained throughout all of June and most of July, for a year dependent on persnickety honeybees who don’t work in the rain, and for a hundred-year- old bog, that’s not a bad yield. Israel will be pleased.

Piney Woods’s owners are the only cranberry growers Bruce works for. After checking back with Israel, he maneuvers the truck up the sandy incline to where the edge of the bog meets Federal Furnace Road. Then he turns the wheel to head south to another Beaton-owned bog to pick up a second load of berries and start the process again.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from America’s Founding Fruit: The Cranberry in a New Environment, written by Susan Playfair and published by the University Press of New England, 2014.

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