Posts Tagged ‘rural’

Cranberries

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.)

upick

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.

In the foreground are the cut logs we dragged in from our woods.  In the middle ground is a pile of split wood that needs to be stacked in the woodshed behind it.  That's our house on the left.

In the foreground are the cut logs we dragged in from our woods. In the middle ground is a pile of split wood that needs to be stacked in the woodshed behind it. That’s our house on the left.

I followed the sign down a dirt road and it led me to Woodward Cranberry Farm.

sign2

I asked the owners, Rick and Linda Woodward, for a tour of their operation, and they graciously complied.

Linda (l) and Rick (r) Woodward

Linda (l) and Rick (r) Woodward

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!”

Nesting boxes (left) edge the bog

Nesting boxes edge the bog (click to enlarge)

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.

A close-up of cranberries growing in their natural state

A close-up of cranberries growing in their natural state, close to the ground amid moss and sandy soil

Linda Woodward picking cranberries

Linda Woodward picking cranberries

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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.

The pond the Woodwards constructed that is to the right of the bog.  At left is the pump house, which transfers the water from the pond to the bog and back again, as necessary.  To the immediate right of the pump house, also in red, is an outhouse with a composting toilet.

The pond the Woodwards constructed is to the right of the bog. At left is the pump house, which transfers the water from the pond to the bog and back again, as necessary. To the immediate right of the pump house, also in red, is an outhouse with a composting toilet.

The pumphouse (r) and the outhouse with composting toilet (l)

The pump-house (center) and the outhouse with composting toilet (l)

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.

Freshly gathered bushel of cranberries

Freshly gathered bushel of cranberries

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Rick Woodward pours cranberries into a winnower.

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.

sortmachine

The antique sorting machine that came from a museum and is still used by the Woodwards

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.”

Antique crates, ca. 1908

Antique  wooden crates, ca. 1908

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.

barn

Sometimes when the barn gets too cold, Linda sorts by hand on this antique sorting belt, which is located in the part of the barn that serves as their living quarters.

Sometimes when the barn gets too cold, Linda sorts by hand on this antique sorting belt, which is located in the part of the barn that serves as their living quarters.

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Another view of the hand-sorting belt.

readyberries

These berries have been sorted and are ready to be juiced, baked, cooked or dried. They are full of anti-oxidants and are known to be helpful for UTIs (urinary tract infections) and prostrate troubles. The Woodwards are happy to share recipes using cranberries.

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.

Cranberry-apple pulp on parchment paper, to be dried into fruit leather.

Cranberry-apple pulp on parchment paper, to be dried into fruit leather.

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My cran-apple fruit leather.

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:

http://www.woodwardcranberryfarm.net/woodwardsite/

An informative article about organic cranberry growing:

http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Summer2009/Cranberries/tabid/1194/Default.aspx

Reportage from a local newspaper:

http://www.advertiserdemocrat.com/community/story/025-42-com-2011cranberries-31-v-0

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And Speaking of the Post Office . . .

Back in my hometown, the post office line is 15 deep, and it takes about 20 minutes to take care of whatever postal business one needs taking care of.  Here in rural Maine, business is not exactly booming.  There is no line, but it takes the same 20 minutes, because “N,” the postmistress, has lots to tell you.  It’s rarely relevant to post office business, however.

“N” is great at multi-tasking and like most Yankees, she is thrifty, too.  One time I waited patiently while she had a phone conversation with a girlfriend, while cutting up scrap paper into smaller pieces.  “Just a minute,” she said to her friend on the phone, when she saw me waiting.  But I was wrong to think I would be served anytime soon. “D’ncha just hate it when people print stuff on theyah computah on only one side of the paypah?  What a waste!” she said to me in her thick Maine accent, and she then went back to her phone conversation while tearing up more paper.  When each paper in the stack was finally in fourths, she arranged it all neatly in a pile, and only then said to her friend, “okay, I have to go!” and turned to me.  “I just really needed to get that paypah done!  Now… how can I help you?”

Within four times of visiting our post office to pick up our mail (more about that later), I found out the following:

“N’s” father put all his money into lakeshore farmland back in the days when land was cheap.  They own a few hundred acres of which 550’ is waterfront property on a premier lake – worth big bucks even in today’s floundering economy.

(This is not an uncommon phenomenon in Maine:  people own land that’s been in their family for generations that is worth a fortune, yet they are lucky to be making $20,000 a year and just barely getting by.  Selling off family land is, l’havdil, like asking a 7th generation Yerushalmi to sell you his apartment in Mea Shearim.  Only in the most desperate of situations would he sell – – but it would be to another 7th generation Yerushalmi.)

In his later years, N’s father deeded a portion of the acreage to his daughter, our postmistress, and there she built herself a house of her own.  After her father died, N’s mother couldn’t really manage the farm by herself and alas, the winters were too hard, so N’s mother spends November through May in Florida.  That means N must manage not only her own property, but the family farm as well – when she’s not at work.

N enjoys her independence, and is proud that she is so self-sufficient.  But she realized right away that a simple pickup truck with a plow blade attached would be inadequate to plow her 2000’ long driveway in the winter.  “I saved up for eight ye-ahs, until I had the cash,” she says with pride.  “I did it by not taking off for lunch while I was at work for eight whole ye-ahs.  And finally, after the eight ye-ahs was up, I went out and bought myself one of those big John Deere tractahs.”

I quickly did the calculations in my head.  Three dollars saved a day, multiplied by 5 days a week, is fifteen dollars a week, multiplied by 50 weeks, is seven hundred fifty dollars a year, multiplied by 8 years:  that comes to six thousand dollars by not eating lunch on the weekdays for eight years.

Now, big John Deere tractors do not cost $6000, they cost more like $30,000.  The other thing is that our post office is closed for lunch every day from 12:30 to 1:30.  I wondered if during those eight lunch-less years it remained open?  But Maineahs do not like to be interrupted with petty details, so I let “N” continue:

“Buying that John Deere tractah was the best thing I evah did.  Of course, it didn’t come with any attachments.  So I had to buy the plow blade and snow throwah extra.”

“N” continued to impress.  “I get up at 3:30 a.m. in the pitch dahk and staht plowing because otherwise I won’t make it to work on time.  It takes 2 hours to plow the whole dahn 2000’ feet of driveway . . . and then I staht in at my mom’s place.  Luckily she only has 500’ of driveway to plow.”

The only time she finds plowing challenging is if it snows while she’s at work.  “Then I have to pahk on the road, snowshoe in the two thousand feet, and hope the dahn tractah stahts up so I can plow back to the road so I can get my cah into the garage.”

“N” has been encouraging me to buy a tractor for our driveway, as well.  Not to mention her suggestion that we must buy spare rims for the tires so they’ll be easier to switch out when we replace our current radials with snow tires.  And we’d better make sure that whatever tires we buy are studded, she adds.

Now all of this well-intentioned information, which really sounds like Greek to me, comes by way of a simple question I posed four visits ago:  what are the requirements for me to get a mailbox in front of my house, so I don’t keep having to drive the eight miles to the post office to pick up my mail, and can save on the expense of a rented post office box?  “N” tells me that the only way to know for sure is to place a mailbox somewhere near the driveway, fill out a form to have the mail officially forwarded from my rental PO box to my street address, and then see if the rural mail carrier can deliver it.

In order to put out a mailbox, I have to buy a box, construct a post, dig a hole before the ground freezes with a post-hole digger, and mix cement to fill the hole.  I ask “N” if it wouldn’t be easier to just tell me what the regulations are before I go to all this trouble so I can see if it’s even doable, but she says she doesn’t want to tell me the wrong thing so I had better just go ahead and give it a try.

But, she adds, the rural mail carrier uses her own car to deliver the mail, and she will not climb the driveway or even get out of her car, so I had better be sure that the box is not only at the correct point off the road – “not too fah and not too close” – and that it had better be the correct height, too, so the mail carrier can slip it right from her car window into the mailbox.

I ask what type of vehicle the rural mail lady uses to deliver the mail, because if she has a pickup truck the window will be at a different height than a sedan.  To which she replies that currently, the mail lady has a station wagon, but “come to think of it, she was talking about trading in her cah,” so she can’t be sure of the correct height of the box and anyhow she wouldn’t want to tell me the wrong thing . . .

Unfortunately even the very bottom of our driveway is too steep for the mail lady’s vehicle in winter; and on either side of the driveway’s entrance there is both a ditch and a culvert, so I cannot think of where we might possibly place a mailbox in any case.  That’s when I start to hear about N’s 2000’ long driveway and her John Deere tractor, and a whole lot else.

One day it occurs to me that if the local mail is delivered in the mail carrier’s private vehicle, and she will not get out of the car, then it must be quite a feat to put the mail in the mailbox through the right side of her vehicle.  So on my next visit I ask “N” if the U.S. Post Office pays to have the mail lady’s vehicle altered or adapted to make this process easier, by installing right-side drive.  “Oh, no, they don’t change anything in the cah,” she said.  “Basically, the mail lady sits between the two front seats, with her left foot on the gas and brake pedals, and her right foot on the passenger side.  Her left hand guides the steering wheel, while she leans ovah with her right hand to open the window and stick the mail in the box.”  This is accomplished without stopping while driving down narrow, remote dirt roads that are twisty, icy, and full of ruts!

“Isn’t it kind of uncomfortable sitting between the two front seats, using both pedals with the left foot and steering with the left hand, while stretching to reach out with the right to put mail in the mailbox from the car window?” I ask, incredulous.

“Oh,” N says nonchalantly, “you get used to it.”

Women from Maine are tough!

So for now, I am picking up the mail about two or three times a week from our rented post office box, eight miles away.  I try to make sure it’s on one of those days when the dump is open, because it’s only 1.5 miles further up the road.   Call it multi-tasking.

You Know You’re in Rural Maine When . . .

(click to enlarge)

 

Although this is not the post office in my little town (population 250 – the town’s population surged when one couple had triplet girls), it could be!

In rural Maine it is not so unusual to find an official US Post Office that also happens to be the place where you buy your beer, your bread, your lottery ticket, your hunting license, worms for your next fishing expedition, and pay your car registration and property taxes!  Gives a whole new meaning to one-stop shopping . . .