Press-Republican

November 17, 2013

Cranberry farm has memorable harvest

Richard Gast
Press-Republican

---- — The 2013 growing season has come to an end. As I look out upon the frost-covered gardens and fields, I can’t help but reflect upon the crops that have been harvested.

As the last of the greens, Brussels sprouts and turnips are taken from the ground, I’m reminded of the diverse variety of vegetables that have been harvested by family, friends, neighbors and Extension associates and clientele; everything from tomatoes, potatoes and summer and zucchini squash to blue dent corn, Romanesco broccoli, Kohlrabi, purple cauliflower and tomatillos.

Tree fruit and nut yields were bountiful this year. Wild and cultivated herbs and edible medicinal plants have been dried and are ready for use as spices and in teas, tinctures and poultices. And the harvesting of forage corn, hay and beans is nearly finished. Yet, there is one harvest that stands out among all the rest.

In mid-October, I had the good fortune of visiting the northern New York farm of Peter Paquin, a veteran cranberry grower from Cape Cod, Mass., as he and his crew were wet harvesting this year’s crop. Paquin grows cranberries on 67 acres of converted hayfields in the St. Lawrence County Town of Brasher, just a few miles from the northwestern Franklin County hamlet of Bombay.

Cranberry plants are actually trailing vines. They produce buds that flower in the spring, after which berries form and develop over the summer months. In the fall, once the berries have turned dark red, they can be harvested.

Several years ago, I watched Paquin and his crew constructing one of his seven bogs. He told me the soil at his farm is heavy clay, which impedes the movement of water and that, since the base layer of any man-made cranberry bog must be impermeable, it is very desirable. Once a site has been leveled, six to 12 inches of sand must be deposited on top of the clay base layer, and the sand layer must provide sufficient drainage for proper aeration, root development and prevention of phytophthora root rot.

He said the sand was trucked from a pit located on property that he owns in South Bombay approximately 10 miles west of the farm. Soil pH must range between 4.0 and 5.0. Since the sand does not fall into that range, sulfur is added.

Paquin used unrooted cuttings, which he gathered from already producing bogs, and a planting machine and weighted roller to set the cuttings at a density of between 1 and 1.5 tons of cuttings to the acre. Cuttings root easily and, if properly watered, each stem can produce up to 200 uprights per square foot. Once established, a planting produces fruit indefinitely.

There are two harvesting methods, wet or dry picking. Wet-picked berries are more prone to rot than dry-picked but, because wet picking allows for quicker, more effective and economical harvesting and almost all cranberries go into juice, sauce, relish, jelly, concentrate or medicinal powder, approximately 90 percent of the cranberries grown in North America are harvested using wet picking. Dry picking is used only for berries that are to be sold as fresh fruit.

With the exception of a small quantity of fresh-market berries that are dry picked using tools similar to blueberry rakes, Paquin’s crop is wet picked. Wet picking was first attempted in 1962 by a New Jersey farmer whose grandfather began picking wild New Jersey cranberries in 1860.

First, he floods his bogs, lifting the vines up off of the sand bed. Next, a machine with a rotating reel is used to agitate the water and dislodge the cranberries. Cranberries are full of air, so they float to the surface. They are gathered by encircling them with a floating boom and a pump is used to remove the floating cranberries from the bog into a machine that separates the berries from the leaves, twigs and debris and then into a waiting semi-truck which, once filled, will deliver the load to a receiving station for further processing.

Paquin’s bogs will again be flooded once the winter has set in, most likely sometime in December. About a month later, the excess water will be drained off, leaving the vines protected under a layer of ice. This process is not necessary in parts of the state where growers can rest assured their vines will remain under a consistent eight-inch layer of snow. But, should the vines become exposed due to a mid-winter thaw, they will die.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Phone 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email rlg24@cornell.edu.