When Dave Ross bought his first cranberry bog in the 1980s, the berry plants were over a hundred years old. In fact, most of the cranberry bogs in the area were built in the mid to late 1800s.
“You know cranberries are a native plant to Cape Cod and so there was a big boom in the 1830s and 40s here, actually centered in Harwich and then pre-Civil War because cranberries were so valuable in Barnstable County there was almost a mania of cranberry bog building.”
Cranberries were so valuable because they stored well and were high in vitamin C. And before refrigeration and widespread fruit shipping, they were one of the few fruits available in the North during the winter. Back then, cranberry bog building meant digging out swampy areas by hand and planting cultivars selected from wild cranberries.
“One of the old-fashioned varieties that was discovered in Harwich actually is called an Early Black because it ripened early and it was so dark purple it almost appears black when you fully ripen. But those are a small berry, those berries we used to get a premium for them when I started out because the market has evolved, primarily it was a juice market in 70s, 80s, and 90s and now the emphasis has really shifted to the sweetened, dried cranberries.”
Because of this shift from juice to dried fruit, wholesale buyers now want big berries, not small historic cultivars. Dave has ripped out the old vines on about 10 of his 80 acres of bog and replanted a new hybrid cultivar called Stephens. It has bigger berries and almost double the yield—growers get 4 or 5 hundred barrels per acre where they used to get 200. But Dave’s not totally convinced that more productive varieties are a good thing.
“I’ve told people that we’re yield obsessed, that we grow cranberry varieties because they’re high yielding and that in the end creates a problem. You know a lot of industries, commodity-based industries fishing, farming have this problem where success actually pushes the price down instead of making the producer more prosperous it’s less prosperity.”
This is important. It’s a huge critique many people have of agricultural policy in the U.S.—commodity crops are regulated by the federal government, and a lot of the incentives pay farmers to focus on yield even when it makes no sense—often times it’s bad for the farmer and the environment and consumer health and the price of the crop. But the frustrating thing is that even when it doesn’t make sense on the collective level, for each individual farmer like Dave, it’s still the best choice.
“On my farm, we grow between 300 and 500 thousand pounds of fruit. And so we can’t sell that in one pound bags at a farmers market or on a stand at the side of the road it’s just not practical. So we’re very dependent on wholesale buyers.”
These wholesalers buy on consignment—which means the farmers get paid when the crop is used. Dave says this can take a long time—sometimes as long as 18 months. And in recent decades, they’re also buying from new super efficient bogs in places like Wisconsin and Quebec, flooding the market with even more berries. Dave says he’s been trying to talk to others in the industry about getting plant breeders to refocus.
“I’ve tried to tell people that we really need as an industry to start thinking about selecting cranberry varieties for flavor. For a while I was on a Don Quixote like crusade to try to tell them they need to change their emphasis and their response is that wasn’t what their marching orders are but I think people are finally starting to listen to myself and others because I think we really need to focus on flavor.”
It might sound obvious. But a bog lasts a long time—like the Early Black plants in Dave Ross’s bog that are over a hundred years old. Changing varieties, changing breeding focuses, changing farm policy—all of these involve a lot of work and time. Many small bog owners on the Cape with five or ten acres have given up. But Dave Ross says the cranberries were here before him and they’ll be here after him. He plans to stay on the farm.