You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic crop than cranberries, which ripen and redden in the fall. In Massachusetts, the cranberry harvest coincides with fall foliage season, providing a double dose of visual splendor. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association, 400 of North America's 1,000 or so cranberry farms are concentrated in Massachusetts: Most are south of Boston in Plymouth County and on Cape Cod.
Any drive in this region during Massachusetts' cranberry harvest season, which typically begins the last week of September and runs through October and sometimes into November, is likely to offer views of cranberry bogs, where growers are hard at work tending and picking the state's top agricultural cash crop. There's a good chance, too, you'll find yourself driving behind dump trucks brimming with red berries.
The Pilgrims discovered cranberries growing wild in bogs near their settlement in Plymouth and christened them "crane berries" because their spring blossoms resemble the shape of the shore bird's head and beak. From their Native American neighbors, the Pilgrims learned to use cranberries not only for food and medicinal purposes but as a natural dye.
Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to North America that are now cultivated commercially. Like blueberries and Concord grapes, demand for cranberries has escalated worldwide as knowledge of their nutritive properties has increased.
If you'd like to set out on a fall driving tour to visit cranberry bogs in Massachusetts, here are some of your best bets for viewing the harvest in progress and purchasing fresh cranberries and cranberry products.
If you want to make sure you don't miss out on the harvesting action at this small cranberry farm, which has three berry-producing bogs, make reservations well in advance for one of Mayflower Cranberries' Harvest Viewing Tours, available on select dates in October and November. If you want to don hip waders and venture into the bog to assist with the harvest, you can opt to reserve Mayflower's two-hour "Be the Grower" Experience. It's pricey, but it may help you appreciate your day job! These experiences sell out far in advance of the harvest season. The new Adopt-A-Bog experience is also an option. You'll use a wooden scoop to dry harvest your own plot of cranberries and take home 30 pounds of fresh-picked fruit in a wooden crate.
Mayflower Cranberries also has a farm store and ships fresh-picked berries anywhere in the United States.
Flax Pond Farms is an ideal place to learn a bit about the history of cranberry growing in Massachusetts. Inside the shop at Flax Pond Farms, you'll discover an antique Bailey Cranberry Separator that dates to 1924. Kids have a blast watching cranberries that pass a "bounce" test for quality scoot down the shoot and onto the conveyor belt, where they can be manually sorted by color and size. You can observe the machine in operation in this video.
Outside on a bog tour, you might meet grower Jack Angley, who has cultivated cranberries on 35 acres since 1967. Wet harvesting was a new innovation in the late '60s, but without a reliable source of water, which is critical to the process, Angley, his wife Dot, and their team of family and hard-working neighbors have "stayed with dry harvesting."
While picking cranberries with a motorized dry harvester is labor-intensive, it has an advantage. Cranberries that are harvested by flooding bogs are only suitable for processing into concentrate for juice, dried cranberries and other consumer products with an extended shelf life. Only dry harvested cranberries can be sold as fresh, whole berries.
Cranberries are rich in antioxidants and nutrients, and those who have tasted Flax Pond Farms' product come back year after year. Some folks who've visited these bogs on bus trips even call to order fresh-picked cranberries for mail order delivery. While most of the farm's crop is marketed by Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray—the largest cranberry cooperative in the world—2,000 pounds can be sold annually from the family's lovely farm store, where samples of hot mulled cranberry tea are served.
Rocky Maple Bogs
When radiant red cranberries percolate to the surface of a flooded bog, it is quite a sight. When bogs are flooded using a sprinkler irrigation system, naturally buoyant cranberries wriggle themselves loose from their vines and pop to the surface. Wind propels the berries toward one corner of the bog, and a boom is used to corral the cranberries toward a pump truck or conveyor system on shore.
You don't have to be on a guided tour to observe wet cranberry harvesting if you happen upon it: Just be respectful of private property, stay out of the bogs and don't ever pick cranberries without permission. After all, these are working farms: not tourist attractions. Rocky Maple Bogs (18 North Carver Road, Wareham, MA) is worth a drive-by if you're hoping to stumble upon a scene like this during cranberry season.
The cranberry beaters, sometimes called "eggbeaters," you may get to see in action don't actually pluck cranberries. Their paddle wheels agitate the water, coaxing reluctant cranberries to release from the vine. Once a bog is flooded, cranberry harvesters must work against the clock to get their product out of the bog and off to the processing plant before berries spoil.
If you don't want to leave experiencing the cranberry harvest to chance, A.D. Makepeace Company offers guided bog tours on select dates during the season. View the schedule online, or call 508-322-4028 for details.
Whether or not you book a spot on this tour, make Makepeace Farms a stop on your cranberry bog driving tour. This farm market is the best place to shop for cranberry goodies and souvenirs, plus other locally produced gourmet delights and gifts including fresh cranberries, sweetened dried cranberries, cranberry granola, cranberry salad topping, cranberry salsa and Richard's Famous Garlic Salt.This all-natural seasoning is made in Carver, Massachusetts, at Cranberry Barn Kitchens.
Learn about organic cranberry farming on a tour of Cape Cod's largest organic bog. Starting in April and available daily through the fall harvest season, these kid-friendly and accessible tours require advance reservations. Before you leave, purchase sweetened dried cranberries and organic cranberry sauce at the farm stand. Fresh cranberries by the pound are also available during the harvest season.
You'll get an agricultural education on walking tours offered by this cranberry grower, which has cultivated 75 acres of bogs on Cape Cod for more than a quarter-century. Make reservations in advance for daily outings from mid-June to mid-December to view bogs in bloom, cranberries on the vine and ultimately, the harvest. The minimum group size is four people.
Visit this Cape Cod cranberry grower on weekends during the harvest season for bog viewing and to shop for fresh fruit and farm-made products including Bogside Honey. Owner Annie Walker left her Broadway production wardrobe supervisor job in 1994 to tend this bog, which was once owned by her grandfather. Dennis is the first town in America where cranberries—a native wild fruit—were successfully cultivated.