A North Country cranberry harvest

The 2013 growing season has come to an end. As I look out upon the gardens and fields that now lay frost-covered and barren, I can’t help but reflect upon the many crops that have been harvested in recent weeks and months.

As the last of the greens, Brussels sprouts, and turnips are taken from the ground, I’m reminded of the diverse variety of vegetables that have been harvested by family, friends, neighbors, and Extension associates and clientele; everything from the usual; tomatoes, potatoes, and summer and zucchini squash, to blue dent corn, Romanesco broccoli, Kohlrabi, purple cauliflower and tomatillos. Tree fruit and nut yields from both wild and cultivated trees were bountiful this year. Wild and cultivated herbs and edible medicinal plants have been dried and are ready for use as spices, and in teas, tinctures, and poultices. And the harvesting of forage corn, hay and beans, which will feed meat and dairy cattle in the winter months ahead, is nearly finished. Yet, as I muse over all of the reaping, gathering and collecting that I’ve done, seen, or experienced this season, there is one harvest that stands out among all the rest.

In mid-October, I had the good fortune of visiting the northern New York farm of Peter Paquin, a veteran cranberry grower from Cape Cod, Mass., as he and his crew were “wet harvesting” this year’s cranberry crop. Paquin grows cranberries on 67 acres of converted hayfields in the St. Lawrence County town of Brasher, just a few miles from the northwestern Franklin County hamlet of Bombay.

Cranberry plants are actually trailing vines. They produce buds that flower in the spring, after which berries form and develop over the summer months. In the fall, once the berries have turned dark red, they can be harvested.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to watch Paquin and his crew constructing one of his seven cranberry bogs. In conversation, he told me that the soil at his New York farm is heavy clay, which naturally impedes the vertical movement of water and that, since the base layer of any man-made cranberry bog must be impermeable, heavy clay soil is very desirable. He went on to describe how, once a site has been leveled, 6 to 12 inches of sand must be deposited on top of the clay base layer, and he elaborated on how the sand layer must provide sufficient drainage for proper aeration, root development and prevention of phytophthora root rot; a problem he has encountered on occasion. He stated that the sand he used was trucked from a pit located on property that he owns in South Bombay, approximately 10 miles west of the farm, and further explained that soil pH within the bog must range between 4.0 and 5.0. Since the sand he is using does not fall into that range, sulfur is added to make the adjustment.

When planting, Paquin used unrooted cuttings, which he gathered from already producing bogs, and a planting machine and weighted roller to set the cuttings at a density of between 1 and 1.5 tons of cuttings to the acre. He explained that cuttings root easily and, if properly watered, that each stem can produce up to 200 uprights per square foot. Once established, a planting produces fruit indefinitely.

There are two methods that commercial cranberry growers can use to harvest their crop; wet or dry picking. Wet picked berries are more prone to rot than dry picked berries but, because wet picking allows for quicker, more effective, and more economical harvesting, and since almost all harvested cranberries go directly into processing for juice, sauce, relish, jelly, concentrate, medicinal powder, etc., approximately 90 percent of the cranberries grown in North America are harvested using the wet picking method. Dry picking is used only for berries that are to be sold as fresh fruit.

With the exception of a very small quantity of fresh market berries that are dry picked using tools that are similar to blueberry rakes, Paquin’s entire crop is wet picked for processing. Wet picking was first attempted in 1962, by a New Jersey cranberry farmer named Bill Haines. Bill’s grandfather, Martin Haines, began picking and selling wild New Jersey cranberries in 1860. The Haines family now harvests cranberries off of 1,300 acres in the region of New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens.

Before seeing it done, Mr. Paquin explained the wet picking method to me like this. First, he floods his bogs, effectively lifting the vines up off of the sand bed. Next, a machine with a rotating reel is used to agitate the water and dislodge the cranberries from the vines. Cranberries are full of air, so they readily float to the surface. They are gathered up by encircling them with a floating ‘boom’ or skirt and a pump is then used to remove the floating cranberries from the bog into a machine which separates the berries from the leaves, twigs and debris and then into a waiting semi-truck which, once filled, will deliver the load to a receiving station for further processing.

Paquin’s bogs will again be flooded once the winter has set in; most likely sometime in December. About a month later, the excess water will be drained off, leaving the vines protected under a layer of ice. This flooding process is not necessary in parts of the state where growers can rest assured that their vines will remain under a consistent 8-inch layer of snow. But, should the vines become exposed due to a mid-winter thaw, they will die.