Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hi Ho the Cranberry Bog

If you're from the U.S. or Canada, the word 'cranberries' likely brings to mind Thanksgiving dinner and the purple-red jellied mass that comes out of a can and is served with your turkey.  (Looks weird, but still tastes like cranberries if you can get past that texture...)  Or perhaps the first thing that pops into your head is the Ocean Spray commercials with two guys wearing overall waders standing waist-deep in a flood of red and pink berries being silly and trying to convince you to drink some sort of cran-fruit juice.  Or maybe you just think .... Craisins!  Which are way better than raisins, in my opinion.

Cranberries are a big thing in Massachusetts.  It's the second largest producer of cranberries in the U.S., which is saying something since almost all cranberry farming takes place in the U.S. and Canada.  Eastern Massachusetts, especially the area south of Boston towards where the arm of Cape Cod extends off into the Atlantic Ocean, is dotted with cranberry bogs.

For most of the year, the bogs look sort of strange.  They are clear, open spaces in an otherwise very woodsy part of the country.  They typically have ditches bordering them, and the tangled mess of shrubs that are the cranberry plants often have a pinkish hue when viewed from a distance.  You can actually see the pink from the air too; keep your forehead glued to your window next time to you fly in to Logan Airport in Boston!

But then there's harvest season.  Harvest season is awesome.  In autumn, when the berries are ready, the bogs are flooded.  The ripe berries float, so the bogs become liquid swirls of pink, red, and white berries.  Some towns hold cranberry festivals, and many of the berry farmers open their operations to tourists who are curious about the cranberry-harvesting process.  They'll let visitors wander around the bogs and they'll talk through the various pieces of equipment and harvesting process.  But why just watch when you can do?

There's one place, Mayflower Cranberries, that offers a 'Be the Grower' experience.  This means waders.  This means tromping around waist-deep in cranberries in a flooded bog.  This means you can live your very own Ocean Spray commercial!!

Mayflower Cranberries is in Plympton, Massachusetts.  The owners live in a beautiful colonial house with a cranberry shed attached to it and acres of bogs spreading away behind the house and across the street from the house.  The bog across the street, Brown Swamp Bog, is home to cranberry shrubs that are over 100 years old!  And that's where we got to hang out for a couple hours.

Us tourists-turned-free-labor arrived mid-morning on an exceptionally warm and sunny October day.  We awkwardly stuffed ourselves into waders provided by Jeff, the guy who owns the farm.  Then one of his employees, a very nice and super knowledgeable guy named Tucker, guided us along the ramp they'd placed across the ditch on the bog's edge (for tourists amateurs only) and straight into the cranberry bog.  We spent a few minutes adjusting to the spongy feeling of cranberry shrubs underfoot and being reassured that walking all over the plants was not causing lasting damage.  Then it was work time!

There were three regular workers in the bog with us.  Using a bog boom, which is a floating rubber tube, they corralled the floating cranberries into tighter and tighter proximity around us.  The berries end up stacked a few inches thick, and it takes some muscle to wade through them.  To one side of the bog, near our tourist-bridge and the waiting cranberry trucks, there was an underwater hose attached to a pump.  While the boom crowded the berries together, we used our rakes to shove the cranberries towards the site of the hose.  Although the hose was marked with a couple rods sticking up out of the water, it was really only noticeable when the pump was on and you could see the funnel of berries pointing down to its mouth.  The berries were sucked through the hose and dumped into the truck waiting on dry land at the edge of the bog.  Actually, there were two trucks.  All the water, as well as leaves and twigs and spiders and other random things in the bog, were dumped into one truck.  The cranberries ended up in the other truck.  After about twenty minutes of not-particularly-strenuous berry-pushing, the truck was full and headed off to the Ocean Spray processing center down the road.

And we hung out in the bog for 45 minutes until it came back!  We took heaps of photos, admired the gorgeous reds and pinks against the blue blue sky, found a frog, threw cranberries at each other, found a spider with a huge web-pod-thing dragging behind it, and repeatedly found ourselves dipping our hands through the layers of berries to the water below and then lifting them to let the water and berries flow through our fingers.  It's the same as when you're on a beach and you can't stop picking up handfuls of sand to feel it trickle through your fingers.  There's something about that motion that connects you to a place.

Tucker told us about the other three seasons of cranberry farming, and we learned that the berries we were harvesting would eventually become .... you guessed it, CRAISINS!!  Craisin cranberries are a bit larger than the berries that end up in the various juice products.  During winter, if there's enough snow to cover the bogs, they are "fertilized" by having sand spread across their surfaces.  As the snow melts and the sand settles, it replenishes the soil.  We also learned that Mayflower Cranberries pumps its water supply from bog to bog to reuse it, and the water can also be pumped to other farms so it's shared with other farmers.  Like many small-scale agricultural operations these days, there is a lot of awareness about how to be conservative and as environmentally-friendly as possible.

When the truck came back, we went straight to work and filled it again.  By the time that was finished, we'd been in the bog for almost two hours and although only a few of the older waders had sprung some insignificant leaks, the general chill of the water was still beginning to permeate the thick rubber.  It was time to let some other wannabe-harvesters have their fun.

It was actually quite hypnotic to watch the swirls of berries curve around you under the influence of the bog boom and then eventually join the whirlpool into the hidden vacuum.  Between the berry-induced vertigo and uneven, grasping terrain invisible beneath our feet, I'm surprised not a single tourist-turned-free-labor took a dunk in the cranberry bog!  Which was fortunate, I suppose, considering the fortune in photographic equipment that we bravely took in with us.

It was a remarkably relaxing morning standing around in a berry bog rocking my waders and cranberry rake.  Perhaps not the most adrenaline-inducing adventure ever, but how many people do you know who have actually harvested cranberries?  I'm basically a professional now -- Ocean Spray, sign me up for a commercial!

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