For the past few years during autumn, I’ve noticed a sign just up the road from my house. (“Up the road,” in rural Maine, as a friend from the city noted sardonically, is relative. In my neck of the woods, that means 1 – 10 miles away.)
I’ve gone to many u-pick farms over the years, harvesting apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries, pumpkins, peaches and beans, but picking cranberries, one of the United State’s few native plants, and almost exclusive to New England, would be a first.
Really, I should have been home stacking wood. Since our sometimes-handyperson Bill felled more of our trees and chunked the logs into manageable pieces, my husband and I have been busy shlepping them into a pile so at a later date he can come and split them. (By “manageable” I mean 10 – 30 lbs. per log. The oak is a lot heavier than the pine or birch.) Once split, the wood needs to be stacked in the woodshed so it can dry for an entire year before it becomes fuel for our woodstove. (If you burn “green” wood without seasoning, it doesn’t burn very well, produces lots of creosote, and smokes heavily.) But like unmade beds, dirty dishes in a sink, or laundry that needs to be folded and put away, that woodpile was not going anywhere and waiting a little longer was not going to hurt.
I followed the sign down a dirt road and it led me to Woodward Cranberry Farm.
I asked the owners, Rick and Linda Woodward, for a tour of their operation, and they graciously complied.
This is a good year for cranberries – their best ever. The Woodwards expect to harvest 7,000 lbs of cranberries in 2013! (Last year, one of their worst ever due to a late spring freeze, they harvested only 600 lbs. Their average is 1200 – 3000 lbs. per year.)
“Wow, seven thousand pounds! Are you going to sell to Ocean Spray?” I naively asked.
“Perish the thought!” said Rick. The Woodwards are very proud of the fact that their cranberries have always been farmed organically (Ocean Spray uses insecticide) and that they supply local customers and small businesses (such as bakers, eateries and health food stores) in New England.
About 25 years ago, Rick, a contractor, and Linda, a dental hygienist for the Massachusetts prison system, were looking for a place where they could be weekend farmers and supplement their retirement. Someone suggested cranberries, so they took a few university extension courses and they were hooked. They bought land in Albany Township in western Maine adjacent to the White Mountain National Forest, cleared about 2 acres of trees in boggy ground, and started planting.
“We made tons of mistakes over the years,” said Linda, “but we have two major advantages: my husband is good with his hands, and I am physically very strong!” she said. Which is a good thing, because they do just about everything themselves, and that includes a lot of kneeling, bending, and lifting.
Their cranberries are certified organic and the Woodwards are members of MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association). Birds control the harmful insect population; their 2-acre bog is bordered by many nesting boxes.
“Bluebirds,” says Linda. “Swallows only eat the flying bugs but bluebirds eat them at the larval stage too. We love bluebirds!”
The gentlest, most thorough way to harvest the berries, albeit not necessarily the most efficient, is by hand rather than machine. Each picker is supplied with a kneeling pad to provide a cushion for one’s knees, along with a small bucket. The cranberries actually grow on small, thin vines, and they share the space with moss and sandy soil. Infringing tree saplings are vigilantly picked and discarded, lest they overtake the bog and threaten the crop.
I had been under the impression that cranberries are always harvested from water, but the Woodwards prefer a dry-pick method since there is less likelihood of mold. The bog is flooded when frost or snow is expected, however. The water (or snow or frost) that ices over the ripe berries actually serves as a form of insulation against the severe cold, and make for a juicier berry. The Woodwards dug a pond next to the bog, and built a pump house. The pump transfers the water from the pond to the bog when needed, and then can pump the water out of the bog and back into the pond when drier conditions are called for. Due to the standing water and surrounding woods, the blackflies and mosquitoes are prolific in springtime, but to my amazement the Woodwards were unfazed.
Once the cranberries are gathered it’s time to sort out the debris (more prevalent when machine harvested with a mechanical rake) which can include small vines, pebbles, moss and grass. Mr. Woodward uses a winnower machine with a fan that blows the debris aside and puts the cranberries into crates.
Linda was excited to show me their antique sorting machine. It and much of their equipment, including their wooden crates (dated 1908) came from a farm museum that had closed its doors. They continue to use the antique machines at Woodward Farm.
The antique sorter searches for berries with the most bounce. And bounce, they do! (That’s why to the right in the above photos there is a screen in front of the ejection box. It helps contain the berries from bouncing all over the barn.) Those berries that are soft and not bouncy are considered “rejects” but are fine for sauce or juice, known as “utility grade.”
Originally the Woodwards slept in an RV on the property, but eventually they ordered a barn (“It came in a kit!” Linda said) which they assembled and built themselves. They use part of the barn for their cranberry operation, and part of the barn, which they modernized and insulated, for living quarters.
When Linda heard I enjoy juicing fruits and vegetables, she suggested I make my own fresh cranberry juice and then use the pulp to make fruit leather. Cranberries are extremely tart, but I prefer not to use sugar. I found that juicing cranberries with an apple made the perfect tart-sweet combination. For the fruit leather, I added 1 tsp. stevia to the apple-cranberry pulp, along with a dash of cinnamon.
After a wonderful morning picking cranberries and learning so much, Linda Woodward put some cranberry vines into my hands.
“Try planting these rooted vines on your land, but make sure you cover them with sand if you want them to succeed,” she suggested. “Maybe you’ll have your own cranberry crop!”
It is so nice to see people like the Woodwards – and there are many like them in their 60s, 70s and 80s here in Maine — whose idea of retirement is not lying around doing nothing, but remaining physically active by choice as long as they are able, pursuing and enjoying a healthful lifestyle in a pristine and beautiful environment. The hard-working and cheerful Woodwards were truly an inspiration to me, and gave me yet another unique Maine experience to share with others.
The Woodwards’ website:
An informative article about organic cranberry growing:
Reportage from a local newspaper: