Cape Cod Cranberries (Fortune, 1946)

November 27, 2011, 7:00 PM UTC

Editor’s note: Every week, publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This weekend, as we enjoy our Thanksgiving leftovers, we take a look back at the business of cranberries from the October 1946 issue of Fortune magazine.

Picking time for Cape Cod cranberries is September and October

That festive fruit, the cranberry, may seem a small enough item to most Thanksgiving trenchermen. But to Cape Codders—who live in the place of white sea sand, blue salt water, and dustgreen scrub pines that pushes eastward into the Atlantic as the cocked “right arm of Massachusetts”–the cranberry is a subject of serious concern.

Shoved from the ocean by the bulldozing action of ice-age glaciers, the sixty-odd miles of the Cape Cod promontory consist essentially of sand on the south shore, of sand and giant boulders on the north; and any considerable accumulation of top soil is regularly swept away by the driving northeast gales of winter. Since cranberries thrive in such surroundings, it was almost inevitable that the swampland bordering historic towns like Dennis, Barnstable, and Hyannis should be devoted to the most American of all fruits. And while cranberries are scarcely a leader in fruit farming–the 1945 yield of $13,500,000 stood, for instance, against $43,700,000 for strawberries–they are the chief export crop of Massachusetts and the support of many direct and independent descendants of the Pilgrims.

The seventeenth-century pioneers found the cranberry growing wild among beach-plum and bayberry bushes in the clearings behind their Plymouth settlement. They learned from the Indians that it was not only nonpoisonous but more than palatable when cooked. It was called “craneberry,” after the pink-and-white blossom that resembles the bill, head, and curved neck of the wading crane. The records of Plymouth Colony show that ten barrels of cranberries were sent as a gift to Charles II of England, but apparently there was no further attempt at popularization until a cultivated bog was set out in 1813 at the town of Dennis on the mid-Cape.

By the nineteenth century Cape Cod was the home of men who carried the American flag and American trade to the remote places of the world in their scudding clippers. Often they were away from their gray-shingled cottages or their serene square-top houses of white clapboard for as long as four years. Some never returned, but eventually, and in numbers, the survivors retired from the sea–not to raise the traditional chicken, but the even more unpredictable cranberry.

For a hundred years the progress of the cranberry industry greatly depended on former sea captains whose names–Nickerson, Sears, Atwood, Doane, Howes–were almost as well known in Hong Kong and Singapore as they were in Sandwich on Cape Cod. Cranberry growing was every man for himself, sometimes profitable and sometimes not. (Within the memory of John C. Makepeace, prominent Wareham grower, a barrel of the fruit shipped freight collect to a New York broker has brought no more than a demand for cash, the value of the berries proving something less than the cost of their transportation.) But the number of Cape Cod bogs steadily increased, and cranberry culture also developed in the West.

Today there are some 28,000 acres of cranberry bogs in the nation, producing an average annual yield of 630,000 one-hundred-pound barrels that have been worth from $8 million to $16 million. Massachusetts, which in this case may be taken to mean Cape Cod, leads with 13,700 acres, yielding 67 per cent of the total crop and gross yearly receipts ranging from $5 million to $10 million. New Jersey has 11,000 acres; Wisconsin, 2,600; Washington and Oregon, 850. Cape Cod, which first produced the commercial cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpum, continues to dominate the business, and the dominant business of Cape Cod growers is to achieve an intimate familiarity with the strengths, weaknesses, and requirements of the vine that earns their money.

The modern, or tame cranberry is larger and more prolific than its wild and rugged ancestor, has a high acid and low sugar content, is rich in iodine, vitamin C, and other food values, and like quince is normally eaten only after cooking. There are fifty-odd known varieties, averaging a half inch in diameter and varying from round to pear-shaped, but on 88 per cent of its bogs Cape Cod grows only two kinds. Favored by the growers of Barnstable and Plymouth counties is the Early Black, which ripens to its deep red color in September, is a good producer and “keeper,” makes excellent sauce, and is preferred for canning. The lighter red Howes, which is grown to about equal extent, is very desirable from a packing and marketing point of view since it matures later than the Early Black. Both berries are shipped fresh and used for canning and other processing.

Growing on a trailing evergreen vine that has many leafy uprights and runners, cranberries do best in swampland that has a shallow surface of peat. When fertilized they also prosper in pure sand. Since the vines are subject to winterkilling, commercial bogs are carefully constructed to provide protection against low temperatures.

The Cape Cod grower, who considers building a new cranberry bog, first looks about for terrain that is sandy, relatively level, free from obstructions costly to remove, and close to a body of fresh water. Nor has he far to look since the Cape is sand, swampland is as plentiful as big trees are scarce, and the inland areas are thickly dotted with fresh-water ponds. When the acreage has been cleared and graded, ditches are dug along its edges and often enough crosswise to insure the drainage that discourages weeds and encourages proper depth of root growth for the vines. The ditches also serve to flood the bog against low-temperature or insect damage, water being supplied either by gravity or by pumping.

Before the April or May planting of cuttings from mature vines, a new bog is covered with sand to a depth of three or four inches. This provides both a growing medium and a mulch that cuts down the effect of drought and fights frost by giving off heat, In four years the vines will grow to mat the whole area, and will then produce a commercial crop of berries, but in the meantime the grower must give them all the care and protection afforded a full-grown and profitable bog.

Bad weather and bugs

About three weeks before Christmas, the sand on a Cape Cod cranberry bog begins to stay frozen throughout the day, and at that time the acreage is flooded, completely but not deeply, with fresh water that will remain until spring. Growers take advantage of ice formations during this winter period to ease their job–repeated every three years–of resanding a mature bog, for they know that sand spread on ice will be deposited evenly and without damage to the vines at the first melting. Ice so sanded, on the other hand, may shut off light from the underlying water, so that its oxygen content is reduced to a point that endangers the evergreen and not altogether dormant plants. When tests reveal this condition, the water must be drained away and the ice allowed to settle upon the vines.

After the spring draining–reflooding is often necessary to combat low temperatures, insects, or fungus–the grower begins weeding and fertilizing, but his main job is to fight insects that attack in waves until the fall harvest and that may damage or destroy both crop and vines. Sweeping his bog at regular intervals with a butterfly net, he estimates in what strength he is being assailed by blunt-nosed leafhoppers–which carry the deadly false blossom disease–by fireworms, cutworms, spanworms, gypsy moths, and other pests. In retaliation he trots out his armament of insecticides, which include lead arsenate, rotenone, pyrethrum, cryolite, and the more modem DDT. The Cape Cod grower is forever mindful of Dr. Henry J. Franklin, cranberry expert at the Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station at East Wareham, who advises that there would be a ten barrel-per-acre increase in the fruit yield if no foot were ever set on a bog. Reluctantly, the grower uses his power sprayers or machine dusters, or goes to the expense of having the job done by airplane.

Regardless of the tricks of weather and the rapacity of bugs, the cranberry harvest–good or bad–begins with the ripening of the Early Blacks, in September, and goes on until the last of the Howes have found their way to the screen house. In the early days “picking time” was a sort of Barnstable County festival, all other work being put aside while people of all ages turned out to gather the crop. Having ridden to the bogs in bright blue wagons piled high with new barrels (modem boxes have since made the cranberry barrel obsolete), almost the entire population of Harwich or Orleans knelt on the vines to pick the berries laboriously by hand. Today the harvesting is done by a smaller horde, mostly Portuguese-Americans, who use wooden-toothed scoops, on an hourly or piecework rate of pay. Recent labor shortages have encouraged the use of a few machine pickers, but these are disliked because of their expense and unreliability, and because they crush an appreciable percentage of the fruit. Regardless of the picking method, numbers of berries drop to the ground under the vines, but a large percentage of these are salvaged by flooding the bogs and floating the loose fruit to the surface. Berries thus gathered are suited only for processing.

Freshly harvested cranberries are at once carted to a so-called screen house, where they are freed from leaves and chaff by a blower, tested for soundness by being dropped on a series of bouncing boards, sifted to eliminate undersized “pieberries,” inspected, and packed for shipment either to the brokers who sell fresh fruit or to the companies that process it.

Of the many factors that bear on the size and health of the crop from any given bog, one of the greatest–unaffected by the skill and knowledge of the grower–is pure luck. Chance determines the weather, and the onset of blights or insects. The per-acre yield of a Cape Cod bog varies widely in different years, from an average low of twenty-one barrels to a high of forty-one. Prices are proportionately uncertain, the seller receiving anywhere from $10 to $20 for a hundred-pound barrel of fruit. But ten acres of bog represents a typical Cape Cod family holding, and the annual yield may be from 300 to 350 barrels, representing a gross income at present prices between $6,000 and $7,000.

The first attempt to establish a market and a firm price for the fruit was made in 1895, with the formation in New Jersey of a cooperative known as the Growers’ Cranberry Co., which later joined with similar organizations to become the American Cranberry Exchange. The exchange, founded as a nonprofit, nonstick cooperative, each member having one vote, for a number of years completely dominated the industry and still holds a prominent place.

Processed cranberry products–which now include canned cranberry sauce, cranberry-juice cocktail, dehydrated cranberries–were introduced in 1918 by Marcus L. Urann, a Massachusetts grower, and were at once successful. In 1930 there was formed a processors’ cooperative, Cranberry Canners, Inc., which has since grown to equal the American Cranberry Exchange in size and influence. Since the processors could use to good advantage undersized and bruised fruit that was of little value to the American Cranberry Exchange, there was at first no competition between the two major cooperatives. Cranberry Canners was able, in fact, to negotiate contracts with sales companies associated with Cranberry Exchange for the purchase of 10 per cent of their fresh fruit. But when the public demand for processed products greatly increased, and when World War II caused all foods to be in short supply, an intense rivalry developed–which may eventually result either in merger or in the elimination of one faction.

Whatever the outcome of this struggle between cooperatives, the indications “are that the individual Cape Cod grower will not suffer. With a steadily widening market and firm prices, his prospects are excellent. Glancing warily over his shoulder at the uncertainties of New England weather and pondering the certain depredations of malicious bugs, he still dares to think of a million-barrel crop.

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