Red Harvest -Winter 2016

by: Lindsay Pykosz

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

“It’s the right thing for Nantucket, it’s the right thing for the Conservation Foundation to be organic...” – Dale Hamilton Trustee
Nantucket’s two remaining cranberry bogs are monuments to the island’s agricultural past, tangible evidence of another time that have remained largely unchanged since before the Civil War.

Eleven years after the Great Fire destroyed the majority of the downtown in 1846, and 12 years before the whaleship Oak became the last of its kind to sail from the island in 1869, the first cranberry bogs were being cultivated on Nantucket.

Nearly 160 years later, the bogs continue to produce, often growing more than one million pounds of the little crimson berry.

But the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, which owns the bogs, has started to move in a different direction. This year’s crop will be the first in a threeyear process of transitioning to all organic berries at the Milestone Bog.

“We’re now in year one of being organically-grown. No herbicides were put on those bogs since last year,” said Dale Hamilton, a member of the Conservation Foundation’s board of trustees and a staunch proponent of going organic.

“The market perceives that as not organic, but organically-grown, and they’ll pay a little bit more than for the traditional berry. In year two there will be another little bump. In year three there will be another

little bump and finally we’re organic.”

The Conservation Foundation will have to certify that the cranberries have been grown organically, which means their growing and harvesting practices will be checked and water samples will be taken to affirm to the federal Food and Drug Administration that the organization is doing everything necessary to grow an organic crop.

“We’re fertilizing with organic fertilizer. We’re using kelp seaweed as the organic fertilizer, which is approved by the FDA, because the cranberry still needs nutrients,” Hamilton said. “It’s sitting in the sand, so there’s not a lot of nutrients. There’s no herbicides, no chemicals. So we’ll save some money by not putting herbicides down, which is an expensive proposition.”

The decision was made last winter to transition from a traditional cranberry bog, using modern growing and cultivation techniques, to organic cultivation. The Conservation Foundation’s 40-acre Windswept Cranberry Bog has been organic for about 10 years, after the Foundation’s lease with Northland Cranberries expired.

“There was a period of three years when they did not actively apply any chemicals into the Windswept Cranberry Bog,” Conservation Foundation executive director Jim Lentowski said. “That, by coincidence, was the period required to make a transition from traditional to organic. It was accidental when it happened, but beneficial because it pointed that bog in the right direction.”

The decision was the right one for the Foundation, Hamilton said, because it fits in with its mission.

“It’s the right thing for Nantucket, it’s the right thing for the Conservation Foundation to be organic, but there’s a conservation piece to it and we didn’t want to get ourselves behind the eight ball and lose money in the process, but it’s still the right thing to do,” he said.

Tom Larrabee Jr., whose late father Tom Sr. was the bog manager for more than 50 years, said only organic-certified materials were used on the bogs. He still used pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers that are organic, but what he didn’t have was herbicides to take care of the weeds.

“That’s where the increased cost comes from is the man hours it takes to get things weeded. You pick and choose your battles now, which is weeds,” Larrabee said. “Before I had herbicides. For 10 years we’ve been pounding away at the weeds here because I knew we were going to eventually go organic. I’ve been pushing for about five years to switch over to organic. It just finally had to come to a head as far as making money, or not making money.”

Larrabee said it’s anticipated that about a third of the crop will be lost, but the Conservation Foundation will gain a third on the price. That will take the organization from losing money to breaking even.

For the past couple of years, Hamilton said the Foundation has been running financial predictions and best and worst-case scenarios. It used to sell the cranberries to Decas Cranberry Products in Carver, Mass., where they were converted into juice. But the Foundation was only paid about eight cents a pound to convert the berries into cranberry-juice concentrate.

“When I came on and took over the committee, I said, I think Nantucket cranberries are better than any other cranberry,” Hamilton said. “Why don’t we trademark genuine Nantucket cranberries? We are going out to companies like Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, saying we have genuine Nantucket cranberries that are worth more.”

Now, Costco purchases 100 percent of the organic cranberries from the Windswept bog, and Larrabee said the chain of big-box stores has guaranteed to buy all of the organic crop it can from the Milestone bog once they are officially organic in 2019. They currently purchase cranberries produced from the Milestone bog, and this year requested to have the entire crop ready for shipping by Oct. 15 so it can be converted into cranberry sauce ready for Thanksgiving.

The Foundation is also currently selling a share of its crop to Canada, where nutraceutical companies are using the cranberries to make medicines that battle conditions like urinary-tract infections.

“We get lucky with these 160-year-old vines. They’re very good for the nutraceuticals,” said Tom Lennon, director of finance and administration for the Conservation Foundation.

And there is more marketing to come.

“So it’s working,” Hamilton said. “We think that, in addition to that, when we go organic, we can now be ‘Nantucket Organic Cranberries,’ and we think we will be positioned to sell our crop at a premium.”

Looking at the average over recent years, Hamilton said the Foundation is probably breaking even. But the move to organic will make the future of the bogs much more sustainable, and will bring in more money.

“That gets us to a positive situation and makes the bog sustainable,” he said. “Because we’re nonprofit, it’s hard to get to our board and say we lost money again. It gets old. Now, if we can be profitable, sustain the bogs, put the money back into the bogs and keep it here on-island, that agricultural position on the island is a very good thing.”

The Windswept Cranberry Bog has been producing 25 acres of cranberries for the last 10 years, and 250 acres are available for cultivation at Milestone.

Last year, Larrabee harvested a million pounds more than the previous record at Milestone, totaling 2.6 million pounds of cranberries. And that was only with 165 working acres because of severe irrigation issues that have come up over the last couple of years. Larrabee spent six years fixing the irrigation system of those 165 acres, and the work paid off.

“Finally, everything came together last year, with the weed-control and the irrigation and the fertilizers,” he said.

The harvesting of this year’s crop is being done later than usual because the organic methods have put the growing timeline a bit behind schedule. The berries weren’t yet red in mid-September.

“We’re probably delaying the harvest two to three weeks from where we used to, to let them mature on the vine,” Hamilton said.

The cranberry season begins in winter when the bogs are flooded so the freezing water can safeguard the vines from frost. When spring arrives the bogs are drained and pink blossoms soon appear. In mid-July

the petals fall and the remaining green nodes turn crimson in the summer sun. Cranberry vines require one inch of water a week to stay healthy and produce large berries. In September and October the tart berries are traditionally harvested.

Cranberries can be harvested with two methods: wet or dry. Wet harvesting disturbs the naturally-occurring waxy coating of the berry so only dry-harvested berries are sold as fresh fruit, while wet-harvested berries, the vast majority, are processed for other uses, like juice and processed cranberry sauce.

In a wet harvest, growers flood the bogs and use a harvesting machine called a water reel, which beats the vines with a series of wooden paddles to loosen the cranberries from the vine. The tiny air pocket in the center of the berry makes them float to the surface where growers corral them onto conveyers and into trucks.

During a dry harvest a mechanical picker that resembles a lawn mower is used to transfer berries to attached bags. The collected berries are graded and screened for color and their ability to bounce. Soft, overripe berries will not bounce. The higher the bounce, the better the berry.

Cranberries thrive in the sandy, acidic soil common to Massachusetts, which makes growing other fruits and vegetables difficult. In the wild, frequently-replenished sand promotes new root growth, adds nutrients and lessens the toxic effect of decaying plant material in the peat. Vines will grow for three years before bearing harvestable fruit.

There are hundreds of unsung heroes involved in the process of producing the tiny crimson berries found at the foundation’s bogs. They’re tiny, can fly and worked around the clock this summer to prepare this year’s crop.

“The more times a bee visits a cranberry flower, the heavier the fruit that’s produced by that plant gets,” Lentowski said. “Cranberry-growers are paid by the weight. If you have a density of bees, that ensures you’ve got multiple visits to that particular flower.”

There is a critical need to match bees with the number of flowers at the bogs, otherwise flowers become unproductive. This year, the foundation used bumble bees instead of the traditional honey bees to pollinate the flowers.

“I’ve been bringing in about 100 colonies of bumble bees over the years for the last five years or so and combining them with the honey bees, and I can go out on the bog at any given day during the summer when pollination is going on and I can count and work my way across the bog and you can get an idea of how hard everyone is working and what they’re doing,” Larrabee said.

“This year, with the decision to go organic, I kind of pushed for it. It’s the first year transitioning so let’s go ahead and get all bumble bees and we’ll track it and see how they do.”

The Foundation purchased the bumble bees used at the Milestone bog this year, whereas they usually rent from off-island vendors, which saved money.

“It’s about a third of the cost and they are shipped from out in the Northwest where they’re produced and they come in to Wareham at the UMass Cranberry Station,” Larrabee said. “From there, Cape Cod Express goes over, picks them up and puts them in the back of their refrigerator truck where they’re cool.”

The cooler the bees, the less chance of them becoming agitated, Larrabee said. The bees are transported to the bogs where they start to do their job immediately. While most of the colony dies off, the queen works her magic to bring in a new colony of bees for the next season.

“The queen will find a mouse hole somewhere and she’ll go in there and go to sleep for the winter,” Larrabee said. “She has all her eggs in storage, she lays those eggs in the spring, she dies and a new queen emerges with a new colony and they’re wild. So now we’ve brought in bees and we’re increasing our own local pollinators by doing this.”

Larrabee will, however, have to order more bumble bees in March to get them to the island by May. This year’s crop, he said, will be an average one. Some spots that produced well last year will likely not be as successful this year, but that ebb and flow is normal, he said.

“I have one piece, bog number five, that gave us 320 barrels to the acre last year on vines that typically give you 100,” Larrabee said.

“This year it’s very sparse. I’ll be lucky if I get 25 barrels to the acre off of it. That ebb and flow is normal, but it’s totally not normal for the amount that we got last year. I was beside myself. It was load after load, and it’s the last bog we picked, so we were like, the season is never going to end.”

Larrabee anticipates the end result will be about 1.5 million pounds of berries, which is “a nice average crop.”

“We’re looking at probably 80 barrels to the acre,” he said. “This year is technically, according to the things that I’ve read, the worst year of the transition. Personally, I feel like next year is going to be the worst year because of the fact that I’m still reaping the benefits of the herbicides that I’ve used in the past. We’ll see how the weeds go.” ///

Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, the island's newspaper since 1821.

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