Cape Cod 5

First Friday: Cranberries on the silicon sandbar

Even third-generation cranberry growers need technology.

November’s First Friday speaker was Dawn Gates-Allen, Communications Manager of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association. She’s also a fourth generation grower.

Founded in 1888, CCCGA developed standards for the cranberry industry, including barrel size and pricing. Ongoing efforts include marketing, environmental affairs and keeping the neighbors happy.

While cranberry bogs preserve the landscape in ways that historically reflect the nature of the Cape, they are also noisy. And there are helicopters. No one noticed this until 1990 to 2000, when the cranberry industry collapsed and growers sold off part of their land to subdivisions.

People thought they were moving to the country when they bought homes neighboring working bogs. They are wetlands, so there’s a built in protection from development. They also provide natural habitat for wildlife (Dawn says she has bald eagles at her bog). Machinery noises and other signs of bog maintenance sometimes surprise new neighbors.

Part of what CCCGA does is educate neighborhoods without alienating them, using the UMass Amherst Center for Agriculture as a resource – both for the science and as a way to share information with their neighbors. Dawn says once a new neighbor understands what’s going on, they rarely complain again.

Cranberries are a vitamin C rich part of the Cape’s history. Sea Captains used cranberries to ward off scurvy. The industry started on the Cape and moved to the mainland during the Revolutionary War. Some bogs are over 100 years old, with many of the original plants. While the bogs haven’t changed much, the process of growing and harvesting has. Dry-harvesting makes up only 5% of the market. Only dry-harvested fruit can be considered fresh. The rest is water-harvested.

Technology has helped drive production up while keeping costs down. It helps them use less water through automation. Solar panels feed the battery that runs the sensors and pump. Technology is also applied to integrated Pest Management and improved management practices.

One more use of silicon: Sand naturally reduces insects and diseases, while providing nutrients for plants.

CCCGA is looking at new tech for innovation, sustainability and planning future success. Grants are funded by the Agriculture Innovation Center, at the MA Department of Agriculture. Automated irrigation costs $1000/acre – which can be grant-funded.

There is also software growers can subscribe to that documents pesticide usage and other key statistics online, so it’s available for MA Pesticide Bureau audits. Growers must be licensed through the MA pesticide bureau, and are required to keep their knowledge and data up to date.

While the Pesticide Bureau licensing is required, CCCGA membership is voluntary. “It’s like a Chamber of Commerce for cranberry growers,” Dawn said.

Growers are also invited to join the Ocean Spray co-op, but it’s expensive. For Dawn the cost was prohibitive, so she’s independent. Dawn’s family has found many ways to keep costs down so they can stay in business. By doing their own engineering and equipment maintenance in house, they don’t have to hire out, which saves them payroll taxes and other employee-related costs.

They also have a closed bog system, which means very little water leaves the farm. To harvest, they flood the bog (that’s the crimson harvest you see), gather the berries, then slowly release the water a day later. Their water resources also lower the need for pesticide application and protect the plants from spring and fall frost. Other growers have found themselves without enough water to harvest.

Dawn also pointed out that fertilizer is not always beneficial. Too much fertilizer and the plants won’t produce fruit. Furthermore, there are no GMOs in the cranberry industry, which means they can sell globally.

The ability to sell globally is becoming increasingly important, with 7 million barrels currently in over-supply. Sales need to catch up to improvements in the production progress, with countries who have never heard of cranberries as a large untapped market.

With that much in surplus, it’s very hard for growers to stay in business. While Dawn and her husband consider themselves growers, they both have good jobs outside the bog.

If farm isn’t sustainable, she says, it’s not in business.

To learn more about what what growers are doing about sustainability, go to cranberries.org.

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