The leaves have started turning orange and yellow, and Massachusetts cranberry growers are halfway through this year’s harvest season. It's been a good crop, but they're worried about low fruit prices. Some growers have had to diversity and others have left their bogs behind.
I went to a cranberry farm with Steve Ward, a second generation grower in Middleboro. Steve’s son Justin Ward, 22, was there harvesting.
Justin started up the pump, flooded the cranberry field, and said, “Before we got onto that bog I said as long as we don’t fall in the ditch we’ll be ok. Well, he fell in the ditch.”
That’s part of the whole harvesting process. Someone always falls into the ditch.
Picking machines removed the berries from the bushes, and the fruit floated to the top. Justin and his crew corralled it into a big ring.
I put on some waders and walked into the water with Steve. The pump sucked the berries up a tube. Steve described the process, “When I talk to little kids I say, it’s like a whirlpool sucking everything in.”
Steve raked the berries toward the suction box. The fruit moved up through a washing system and onto a truck.
I first saw this process at the 15th Cranberry Harvest Festival where I met Steve a few weeks ago. Steve said that working on the bogs is hard, and can be kind of lonely. But the Harvest Fest reinvigorates him.
“The excitement that someone shows on their face when I talk about something that I think is kind of day to day, almost kind of boring at times, makes me feel good. Makes me feel needed,” he said.
The annual event brought 30,000 people to Wareham this year. People rode in helicopters over the fields and even walked into the bogs.
But, this year was the festival’s last. That’s a sign of bigger changes in the industry. Nationally, cranberry revenues have dropped, and farmers who staff the event just can’t afford to take a week off from harvesting.
The problem is worse for Massachusetts growers because most of the bogs here are natural, which makes them less efficient than man made bogs in places like Wisconsin or Canada. Farmers here are banking on state funding to upgrade their bogs.
Steve said, “If we don’t do that, other parts of the world and other parts of the country are going to put us out of business.”
Steve had mixed feelings about his son entering a struggling industry. But this job makes Justin happy. “I’m hoping to do this as long as I can. This is really fun for me,” he said.
They go out together every year when the first cranberries are ready to taste, and find the very best berry they can. Steve holds that cranberry over his head, and yells at the top of his lungs, “First cranberry of the season!”
Justin usually makes fun of his dad, and asked him why he has to yell so loud.
Steve said, “It has to be that way. The whole world has to hear it.”
Steve and Justin Ward are doing all they can to stay in business. They say they’ll be out here every year for their own harvest celebration.