Dry-harvesting organic cranberries

The bog during the flood stage, when Fresh Meadows Farm is controlling for pests and diseases. Note the irrigation pond in the background.
Photos courtesy of Domingo Fernandes/Fresh Meadows Farm.

There’s something special about cranberries harvested for the fresh market. Bags of cranberries are a staple on supermarket shelves over the Thanksgiving holiday, and sales of fresh cranberries during fall farmers’ markets are becoming commonplace in areas where cranberries are grown. In order to maintain high-quality, fresh, firm berries, these cranberries are picked dry, without flooding the bog. The dry harvesting method is more labor-intensive, but adds value to the berries.

Wisconsin leads the nation in cranberry production, with Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington following. With a combined total of well over 7.5 million barrels – about 77 million pounds – of cranberries harvested in 2012, just over 3 percent are destined for the fresh market, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) data. New Jersey and Oregon cranberry acreage almost exclusively goes toward processing.

Maine, which has just over 200 acres of cranberries in production, is a small player in the market, but over 10 percent of those acres are dry-harvested. Massachusetts’ yield of dry-harvested cranberries, according to 2012 NASS data, accounts for about 4 percent of the total harvest, similar to Wisconsin. Eliminate all but organically grown, dry-harvested acreage, and few growers remain.

Due to the pest and disease pressures, organic cranberry production in the Northeast, whether the berries are wet or dry-harvested, can result in reduced yields per acre when compared to conventional growing. On the West Coast and in Canada, where pest and disease pressures are not as high, organic cranberry growers are more prevalent. Yield on dry-harvested acres is also less than when wet harvesting occurs, as loss of berries during the dry raking process is a factor.

The role of bogs

Whether harvested dry or wet, bogs are necessary for commercial cranberry production. Bogs are traditionally planted with vine clippings and take about five years to achieve maximum production. Flooding provides insect control, adds winter insulation via ice formation, provides weed control, and allows for sanding of the bogs to occur without a large yield reduction the following season. Bogs do not need to be replanted; proper pruning and sanding help to maintain production vigor.

In the wild, cranberries grow in sandy, acidic soils that are high in organic matter and near slow-moving water. The bog environment is meant to mimic that ecosystem in a controlled format.

Newer cranberry bogs are more readily developed on upland soils. These bogs are built near a water source, dug to be able to hold 2 feet of water, and typically include a lower reservoir to capture the water when it is drained from the bog. Ditches and dikes are engineered for water control.

In larger operations, bogs of several acres in size are interconnected. An adequate source of sand must be present. These upland bogs are referred to as mineral bogs to distinguish them from the wetland bogs, which contain peat or muck soils with high organic matter content. The upland mineral soils must be built to re-create as much of a wetlands environment as possible for successful commercial cranberry cultivation.

A primary concern in building a bog is the water supply. Cranberries require about 1 inch of water per week for growth, and more water is used when flooding the bogs. In Massachusetts, the Department of Environmental Protection oversees water usage under the Water Management Act. While the water used in cranberry production is virtually all returned and recycled, growers must be concerned with erosion control, water quality and water conservation.

Organic growers have additional concerns about the quality of water used in their bogs. The water source has to be certified organic, as it is a part of the farm. The water must be free of any contaminants or residues that are not allowed under organic standards.

“Most bogs in Massachusetts are downstream from one another,” said Domingo Fernandes, a Massachusetts cranberry grower. “Finding a dedicated water source for organic production can be difficult.”

Fresh Meadows Farm

In this old photo, circa 1950s, Domingo Fernandes’ mother handrakes the dry cranberry harvest at Fresh Meadows Farm.

Fernandes has been growing cranberries for over three decades. He continues the traditional dry harvest method used by his grandfather and father, who came to Massachusetts from the Cape Verde Islands in the early part of the 20th century. The Cape Verdean immigrants played a major role in the cranberry industry at the time.

Fernandes continues to grow cranberries on the bog developed by his grandfather and recently transitioned to organic production, receiving organic certification on the 3-acre bog in Carver, Mass., in 2008. While the odds of success may seem slim, he recently certified another 5 acres for organic production beginning with the 2013 harvest.

“Very few organic cranberry acres exist here in Massachusetts, so when I decided to start Fresh Meadows Farm in 2005, although risky and challenging, it seemed the perfect niche for this area,” Fernandes said. “Transitioning to organics is expensive. Certification requires three years of transition, [and] during that period of time, a grower must withstand reduced yields with no value added to offset them.”

All of Fernandes’ production is sold on the fresh market. His 2012 yield of 2,570 pounds of dry-harvested organic cranberries was higher than normally expected in a season. Ninety percent of the cranberries are sold wholesale to Jonathan’s Organic, where they are distributed and marketed directly to supermarkets, home delivery companies, and national organic and food service distributors. Fernandes direct-markets the rest via on-farm sales, farmers’ markets, cooperative markets and restaurant sales.

Traditional Massachusetts cranberry varieties are the heirloom Howe and Early Black, which have been the standards for fresh cranberry production. However, newer varieties with higher yields, combined with some evolution in fresh-harvesting practices, have led the way to renovation of bogs, although many growers continue to stand by the older varieties for their dry-harvested acres.

Fernandes said, “The Early Black and Howe varieties have historically been the Massachusetts fresh fruit berry and are best suited for traditional dry harvest methods.”

Organic production

“Pesticide Use in Cranberries,” a fact sheet published by the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, outlines the challenges faced by organic cranberry growers in Massachusetts: “Unfortunately cost of production for organically grown fruit is much higher than that grown with the help of chemical control. It is important to keep in mind that the wetland growing environment of cranberries is host to many competing and predatory organisms for the vines. Without the assistance of chemical controls, costs rise rapidly to cover losses from increased labor and reduced yields.”

Weeds, pests and fruit rot are common problems in organic cranberry production. Proper fertilization can also be of concern. In conventional production, rapid-release fertilizers are applied in timed applications at specific stages of growth. Organic fertilizers – typically fish emulsions and chicken manure-based products – are slower-acting and must be managed differently for effective results.

“With organic bogs, I have learned to take a more macro approach to pest and nutrient management,” Fernandes said. “Organically I cannot chase individual crops with fertilizer, but rather I need to treat the soil for long-term health and stability.”

The main pest concern is the cranberry fruitworm. Feeding on developing fruit, the pest can severely reduce the crop yield. Spring flooding is “essential for controlling the cranberry fruitworm,” Fernandes said. It also controls the other primary pests: cutworms, spanworms, and gypsy and winter moth caterpillars.

Domingo Fernandes of Fresh Meadows Farm dryharvests cranberries from his 3-acre certified organic Massachusetts bog using a Furford harvester.

This late water flood generally occurs for a 30-day span from mid-April to mid-May. The flooding must occur prior to the plants putting forth any new growth. The exact timing of the late flood is dependent on weather patterns and growing conditions. The cranberries cannot be flooded during the hook and blossom stages, which are the last stages of growth as bloom occurs, without significantly impacting or possibly even eliminating the crop.

“The use and timing of floods are the most important means of organically controlling pests and fungus on the bogs,” Fernandes said. “Organically approved pesticides are limited, expensive and many times not very effective. Organic pest threshold numbers need to be much higher than conventional.”

A winter flood is used by some growers to protect the cranberry vines from winterkill. The ice layer formed during winter flooding also allows for sanding to occur. Sanding of the bog, which typically occurs every few years, improves growing conditions in the bog, both stimulating growth and reducing pest and weed populations. The sand is applied after a winter-flooded bog freezes.

Sanding does reduce the following season’s yield, but the impact is lessened if the sand is applied over the ice layer. The sand stimulates the vines to produce new roots and covers the bare wood at the plant’s base. New roots and shoots then develop, adding vigor. Sanding also impacts the weed population by burying weed seed. Insect eggs and overwintering insects are also eliminated via sanding.

The dry rake is used to scoop the berries off the vine by hand, rather than with the harvester. Then the berries are dumped into crates.

Dry harvesting

Some farmers still dry-harvest with hand-held rakes. Fernandes utilizes a Furford harvester. The self-propelled harvester deposits the berries into attached bags. Full bags are moved from the fields via small buggies or carried out. Bags are put into plastic bins for sorting. Some farms haul bins out by truck or even helicopter, depending on bog size and location.

Fernandes’ fruit is harvested incrementally, which protects the freshness of the berry and minimizes storage needs. Fruit is sorted in a small screen house using traditional cranberry sorting equipment and hand sorters. The process is slow, Fernandes said, but results in a high-quality product. He loses about 5 percent of the crop to bruising. These berries are relegated as “seconds” and frozen. None of his crop is processed.

Photo courtesy of melodi2/sxc.hu.

The cranberries must be completely dry before they can be harvested. Dew, damp conditions or overnight frost means a delay in the harvest. Fernandes’ harvest normally occurs over a three-week period from late September through October.

The market for organic cranberries is expected to keep growing. Organic cranberry growers face multiple pest and weed pressures that must be addressed primarily via cultivation practices, and they do not have the yields per acre associated with conventional practices, but they do reap the rewards of environmental stewardship and the increased price that organic fruits demand. If that fruit is also dry-harvested and sold on the fresh market, the value is even greater.

Fernandes’ plan for growing his organic acreage embraces his mission to “grow organic cranberries using only heirloom varieties, using traditional harvest and cleaning methods, and attempt to satisfy a locally grown sentiment.”

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.


Fresh Meadows Farm: www.freshmeadowscranberries.com

Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association: www.cranberries.org

University of Maine cranberry resource: www.umaine.edu/cranberries

University of Massachusetts Cranberry Station: www.umass.edu/cranberry

Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association: www.wiscran.org