Crimson Tide: Cranberries

By Pamela Denholm.

One of the most important things to us is supporting our local growers, and local community at large. Like many of our fellow foodies, we live on a budget and have to make careful purchasing decisions to make ends meet and are constantly balancing our food values and ethics with the bottom line: how much does it cost?  I have reached a point where I have stopped comparing prices of local and organic food to imported or mass produced food, because at the end of the day, there is no comparison, it’s apples and oranges.  Firstly, we have managed to transition to almost all local/organic food without going broke, and secondly the true cost of ‘buying cheap’ comes at a price I really don’t want to pay–loss of liquidity, jobs (and personality) where I live, not to mention environmental and health considerations.

This came to the fore again when I stopped in at a grocery store the other day and saw cranberries on special. They were from Wisconsin, who for nearly 20 years has been the biggest cranberry producers in the country. “That’s nice,” you may say, “good for them!” And it is good for them, around 3,500 jobs are created and it is their largest fruit crop bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state each year. Regrettably, as with every story there is a flip side . . . the Wisconsin crop ‘floods’ the local market making it more challenging for our own cranberry growers to gain traction in the space–cranberry bogs are a part of the New England cultural landscape, fall wouldn’t be fall without apples, pumpkins, foliage and cranberry bogs in harvest. And here are a few other things to think about:

  1. The local berries are of a far superior standard, they are mostly sorted by hand, and carefully packed, giving us an excellent quality berry with longevity. The Wisconsin berries are wet picked by flooding the bogs, and then dried for packaging. The wet pick method bruises these beautiful red orbs, and leaves us with an inferior fruit.
  2. Cranberries are good for you! They are very high in fiber and vitamin C, and also boast Vitamins A, E and K and are low in cholesterol and sodium. The fresher the berry, the more nutritious, and local berries are absolutely fresher.
  3. Environmentally speaking, the unmeasured cost of the carbon foot print (1200 miles vs 20 miles) should be factored
  4. Our farmers, our neighbors, employ neighbors. If we want unemployment to go down in our state, we need to support local businesses and farmers. You only need to spend a third of the money with a local business to have the same impact within your community as spending with a big box chain store when it comes to liquidity and jobs.

Our cranberry growers are sitting on a wonderful harvest this year and call me romantic, but I love seeing the bogs in our landscape, they belong, and I also love the idea that it was grown right here in New England–talk about tradition and heritage! I am proud of this culture. I will continue to buy local berries, at a price that is fair to our farmer for as long as he has them available, after all the people employed to pick and screen the berries, live within our community, and their children go to the same schools as our children. Here on the South Shore, we are a community with pride, we work together and we live together, we have soul. Cheap berries from Wisconsin may put an extra dollar back in our pockets, but our berries are worth so, so much more and they are better for us in every way.

Introducing Fresh Meadows Farm

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Did you know that cranberries are related to blueberries? Uh-huh, it’s true–is too! And, as with the strawberry and the blueberry, it is native to this area. I love it when fresh food is deeply rooted in a region’s history and culture, it makes it much more interesting to learn about than some new fad (kale) or exotic discovery (quinoa). I think I like it too because what you discover touches something else, and before you know it, you have unraveled a multi-layered story spanning generations and cultures and suddenly, the cranberry is no longer a round hard acid little berry–it’s a nutrient dense, life-saving crimson orb that has brought people together and has stories to tell.

Fresh Meadows Farm, Carver, is just such a place where you can hear some of these stories.  Dom, the farmer, operates out of an 19th century cranberry sorting house that resides over an old bog, it has big windows that face east and west to allow valuable daylight to cast its glow over laborers of yesteryear, as they rushed against the shortening days to get the berries picked, sorted and packed. Much of the old equipment, running on pulleys and cogs, has been restored too, so when you step over the threshold of the sorting house, the experience is tangibly magical, like stepping into an old painting.

Dom runs the farm that his grandfather, John Alves, started building back in 1945. John was a first generation immigrant of Cape Verdean descent. Like many others of his generation, he emigrated from the Cape Verde Islands to escape a drought induced hardship and to try and create a better opportunity for his family. Born on the island of Fogo, he left a culture rich in the tradition of farming, and it is this background that led him and many of his country mates to find a home in the emerging cranberry industry here in southeastern Massachusetts.

Whilst the cranberry’s rich history started with Native Americans who used to handpick their harvest, and later with early New England settlers, commercial production of the berry started to ramp up in the late 19th and early 20th century. With this escalation came the increasing demand for migrant labor and these opportunities played a large role in shaping the early geographical patterns of the Cape Verdean emigration. The ancestral heritage of Fresh Meadows Farm is directly tied to the labor demands created by this rapidly expanding cranberry industry, and today, the farm that John started all those years ago has touched five generations.

Hand sorting at Fresh Meadows Farm.

Hand sorting at Fresh Meadows Farm.

Today, Fresh Meadows is a Certified Organic cranberry operation, this means they have had to combine both their heritage and modern understanding of science to ensure successful harvests year on year. Fungal, insect, and weed pressures are held in check by a more macro approach to pest and nutrient management, plus their water source needs to be clean and free from any residues and contaminants, which is harder and harder to ensure with the expansion of the population and industry in Massachusetts–but vital too, so it is tested regularly. Soil stability is also key, and traditional cultural controls such as floods and sanding are frequently used. Finally, Dom has been selective on the variety of cranberries he grows, although few heirloom varieties are commercially grown today, it is the heirloom Early Blacks and Howe’s that Dom favors over hybrid varieties, he feels they are better suited to the dynamics of the region and therefore better suited to organic production.

Dom and his team also dry harvest their berries, although once the predominant harvesting method, dry harvesting now accounts for less than 5% of all cranberry production. Although slower, it allows Dom and his team to harvest incrementally, ensuring a better quality and color berry, and a fresher berry, for his customers.  That’s us!

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Reprinted with permission from South Shore Organics Newsletter. 

About eSS&SC

The South Shore and South Coast has been home to hunting, gathering, fishing, farming––and great eating––for over 10,000 years. We are committed to identifying, devouring, and sharing all that Southeastern Massachusetts has to offer today and preserving local options for future generations.
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