Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cranberry Bog Visit

This fall, Slow Food Tufts members traveled south to visit the UMass Amherst Cranberry Experiment Station and a number of cranberry bogs. The station, located in East Wareham, serves as an outreach and research center and aims to support the economic viability of the region’s cranberry industry, with a focus on efficiency and sustainability. Most of us know and love cranberries during a specific time of the year, but the round, shiny red berries are a prevalent, year-round theme in Southeastern Massachusetts.

The origin of the Cranberry Station can be traced all the way back to 1905 when the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association (CCCGA) convened to discuss cranberry insect problems. At that time, cranberry farming has been growing strong for nearly 50 years, but not without some stumbling blocks presented by Mother Nature herself. By 1910 the Legislature made funds available to purchase land for both a building to house the station and a cranberry bog. Alas! The UMass Cranberry Experiment Station began its story, supporting the industry for the century to come.

It was pretty clear that the cranberry industry is critical to both the economy and character in Southeastern Massachusetts. Growing cranberries requires a surrounding network of support acres – the fields, forests, streams, and ponds that make up the cranberry wetlands system – so there are more than 60,00 acres of total land are used to cultivate cranberries. This helps to conserve open space, making for a beautiful contrast of woodlands surrounding sandy or flooded cranberry bogs, depending on the growing stage.

Cranberry is one of only three crops native to North America and holds a special place in New England agricultural and culinary traditions. Many people think of Massachusetts when they think of cranberries and deservedly so: the state ranks second in the nation in cranberry production. Fortunate for the many Bay Staters dependent on the industry, people across the nation and world are seeking out the health benefits and unique gastronomic properties of the berry and are equally fascinated by the natural beauty of the cranberry harvest.

The low-growing, woody cranberry plant is a perennial that produces stems or “runners” that are one to six feet long. This forms a thick mat over the surface of a cultivated bed. By September, the fruit begins to develop its characteristic red color through the production of a potent antioxidant pigment, anthocyanin.

Once the berries are firm and distinctively scarlet in color, the harvest begins. Wet harvesting involves flooding the bog and driving motorized “egg beaters” into the bog to loosen the berries from the vines. The floating tiny red balls are then corralled towards shore and are moved by pump into waiting trucks.

The folks from the UMass Cranberry Station did an excellent job of making sure we got to see every step of the cranberry growing process. The trip was brought to an end by a visit to a cranberry shop with everything from chocolate covered berries to cranberry salsa. The vist couldn’t have been more picturesque for a true autumn-in-New England experience.

1 comment:

  1. I can think of none such perfect event to celebrate the changing seasons in New England than a visit to the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod!

    A little known "cranberry" fact to those who may not be experts in the production of this delicate fruit: cranberry plants prefer NOT to "have their feet wet", and instead spend most of the season growing on moist, but not saturated sandy soils. It's only during the final harvest stages during the fall that the bogs are then flooded to give rise to the widely promoted image of the plump red fruit floating atop serene bogs.

    Of course, I couldn't leave the bogs without taking home a few pounds of fresh cranberries. Just slip them in a ziploc bag, toss 'em in your freezer and you'll have a ready source of fresh, local berries for your cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving!