Cranberries on Nantucket
Cranberries have been grown on Nantucket since 1857 and were an important part of the Island's economy until just prior to World War II. Before 1959, all 234 acres of bog were under cultivation on the Milestone Road, making this bog the largest contiguous natural cranberry bog in the world. Since that time, intensive efforts to conserve water resources have resulted in the construction of a complex network of ditches and dikes that subdivide the bog into smaller and more water-efficient units. Unfortunately, these measures led to the Milestone Road bog losing its status as the world's largest bog.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation's stewardship of the Island's two remaining commercial cranberry bogs began in 1968, when Roy Larsen, Walter Beinecke, Jr., and Arthur Dean joined forces to purchase the assets of what was then known as Nantucket Cranberries and incorporated the Milestone Road Cranberry Bog's total of nearly 1,000 acres into the holdings of the Foundation. The Windswept Cranberry Bog, a man-made bog built at the turn of the century, was purchased by the Foundation in August of 1980. This property totals 105 acres of marsh, woodland, and bog. Forty acres are being actively cultivated, while the remaining acres are set aside for conservation use.
The cranberry, named such because its pink blossoms resemble the head of a crane, was first cultivated in the United States in 1816 on Cape Cod. Henry Hall of Dennis found that cranberries flourished when cultivated under growing conditions similar to those found in the wild. These include: an acid, peat soil; a surface layer of sand that is frequently replenished (sand stimulates the growth of new roots, adds nutrients, helps control certain insect populations, and diminishes the toxic effect of decaying plant material); and an ample supply of fresh water.
Cranberry vines are planted by gently pushing vine trimmings into a prepared bog that has been leveled and covered with a layer of sand. New plantings must grow for about three years before they will bear harvestable fruit. If properly cared for, the 6-8 inch tall plant will produce berries indefinitely. Modern management practices include weeding in the spring, fertilizing in the summer, pruning in the fall to keep the vines at their optimum length, and periodic re-sanding in the winter. A complex water distribution system must irrigate the bogs in dry weather. This same system is also used to protect flower buds and the ripe berries from spring and fall frosts. Also, flooding is required during the fall harvest and throughout the winter months to minimize the effects of cold and wind damage.
On Nantucket, the Early Black variety of cranberries (small and black-red when ripe) are harvested during late September; the Howes variety (larger, oblong and medium-red when ripe) is picked from early October into November. Cranberries were individually hand picked until the early 1900's, when the wooden cranberry scoop was developed. The cranberry scoop method of harvesting was faster, but it left a great number of berries on the vine and was very labor intensive. Since World War II, growers have used an assortment of mechanical pickers, including the Western picker and the Darlington picker. Tines (metal fingers) on these machines scoop underneath the berries and hold them, while the forward motion of the picker plucks them from the vine. The machines damage the vines less than the use of the scoop, but as much as twenty percent of the fruit can be bruised using this method.
Today, more efficient and less damaging mechanical techniques are used. During wet harvesting, a section of bog is flooded with a foot or so of water. A machine called a water reel beats the submerged vines with a series of horizontal paddles. This causes the naturally-buoyant cranberries to detach from the vines and float to the surface of the water. They are then corralled and pulled to the edge of the bog with floating wooden booms. The fruit is loaded into large dump trucks by a conveyor. Following washing and screening, the berries are shipped by tractor trailer to the mainland to be processed by fruit handlers.
Nantucket's cranberries are processed in three steps. First, they are washed and blasted with a strong current of air to eliminate leaves, twigs, and other debris. Second, they are sorted using a Bailey Separator, where the berries drop vertically through a series of seven compartments. At each level they may either bounce over a four-inch high board into the "good berry" side of the machine or drop down to the next lower level. Firm (good) berries bounce; soft berries are overripe and will not. Those berries that are overripe will continue to drop until they reach the bottom of the sorter and are eventually discarded. The good berries are bagged and sent to freezer storage for future processing into juices, sauces, or relish.
Because wet harvesting causes the fruit's protective wax coating to break down, only dry-picked cranberries are sold as fresh fruit. After they have gone through the same sorting routine as outlined for wet-harvested berries, dry-harvested berries are visually inspected for color and appearance and polished by soft brushes. They are then bagged and immediately sent to market.