October 30, 2014

Farm of the Month: The Vineyard Open Land Foundation’s Cranberry Acres Bog

Each month, as part of our Harvest of the Month program, we will be featuring one island farm here on our blog. We'll talk to our Farm of the Month to learn all about the growing process, seasonality, and favorite ways to enjoy the crop! October is here, and we're celebrating cranberries. “I found one!” A West Tisbury first grader triumphantly points to a crimson berry peaking out from beneath a tangle of vines. “They are so beautiful.” he continues. For weeks, her class his been studying cranberries. Through science, reading, and writing, they have explored how cranberries grow, how they are harvested, their history, and even how to cook with them. Today, the students get to answer all of these questions in one place: the Vineyard Open Land Foundation’s Cranberry Acres bog. Hidden away on Lambert’s Cove Road, Cranberry Acres is the island’s only commercial organic cranberry bog. Managed using traditional practices, the bog pays tribute to the island’s long history with cranberries, both wild and cultivated. The cranberry is one of North America’s three native fruits. For thousands of year, Wampanoag people on Martha’s Vineyard have relied on wild cranberries to get them through the long winter. The berries were dried and stored or sold as an important source of income. Cranberry Day, a Wampanoag harvest celebration in October, continues to honor this important crop. After English settlement in the mid 1600’s, cultivated cranberry bogs spread across the island, an addition to the landscape previously dominated by wild cranberries. Swampy lands were cover with sand, and drainage ditches allowed for proper flooding and subsequent draining of the bogs. Many whalers, returning from sea, turned to cranberry cultivation in the off-season. The cranberry industry flourished until the 1960’s when a health scare, triggered by news that a commonly used herbicide of the time was cancer causing, took a hard hit to business. Bogs on the island were left to return to their wild state. One bog, a historic 1880’s parcel owned by the Duarte family, was converted into a family campground in the 70s, and fell into disrepair. Scudder1014_FARM_WTS_CranberryAcres_011 In 1982, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation (VOLF) bought that 45-acre parcel, developing it for mixed public, agricultural, and residential use. Restoring the bog was an important way to honor the historical landscape of the island. “We want to show that you can have conservation land that’s still being used for something else, not just sitting there,” says Carol Magee, VOLF’s director. Ten years ago, Ms. Magee’s curiosity for cranberries brought her to “cranberry school”, an extension program of UMass, There, the restoration of the historic bog began to take shape, as she connected with Bob and Kristine Keese of Cranberry Hill Farm in Plymouth, MA. As organic cranberry growers themselves, the Keeses were an inspiration to the VOLF team, who had been told that organic cranberry production at a commercial scale was not feasible. Organic may be feasible, but it is surely not the norm. The cranberry industry’s largest growers, concentrated on the Cape and in Wisconsin and Canada, have followed the road of industrialized agriculture, where unsustainable practices and chemical use are commonplace. In fact, conventionally grown cranberries are known to have more pesticides per serving than any other fruit or vegetable. A commitment to environmental preservation and a love for Martha’s Vineyard’s history are what motivate VOLF to operate their bog organically. It hasn’t always been easy, thought. For VOLF, the bog has been a labor of love. Over the past ten years, the bog has been restored using traditional, organic methods with the help of the Keeses. What has bogged them down, however, are the weeds. While conventional cranberry growers pump pesticides into their bogs, VOLF growers use painstaking, labor-intensive methods, such as hand-weeding and hand-sorting. “You have to look at every cranberry. It’s a very arduous process,” Magee says. She has been known to spend hours sorting cranberries at her home to aid in the bog’s efforts. Currently, VOLF harvests about 300 pounds of certified organic cranberries annually. The bog is expected to produce at least 2,000 pounds of cranberries annually when it is completely renovated. cranberrypost_4 Not only are these methods protecting our health and environment, but they are also honoring Martha's Vineyard tradition. To harvest and process the cranberries, they use historic cranberry sorting machines, once owned by the Duarte family. “It’s a unique form of agriculture. They’re not out there at Morning Glory Farm or Norton Farm with horse drawn plows, but it’s almost like that here in the way we’re doing things here,” say Eric Peters, board chairman of VOLF. The machines and other artifacts will be on display in a converted processing shed on the property, which VOLF plans to turn into a fully-staffed cranberry museum, ensuring that learning will continue for island students for years to come. Cranberry Acres cranberries are available in the fall from VOLF at 508-693-3280, or find them at Morning Glory Farm, Cronig’s Market, Tisbury Farm Market and Alley’s General Store.