Storey’s marketing designer, Ash Austin, writes about her trip to a Cape Cod cranberry bog in pursuit of a coworker’s long-held dream.

Harvesting cranberries

Ash (left) and Andrea (center) living the dream.

My Storey colleague Andrea Herbst has a bucket list. Some of the items on her list suggest she craves adrenaline-pumping, risk-filled things: driving a tank, firing a bazooka, successfully eating pufferfish sushi … and working in a cranberry bog.

A cranberry bog? As a (mostly) life-long resident of Minnesota, she’d been charmed by television commercials for Ocean Spray, which depicted Cape Cod bog workers standing thigh-deep in a sea of red berries. As she says, “Those two dudes in the cranberries make it look super magical.” Since this fall marked her first full year as a New England resident, it seemed the ideal time to satisfy her curiosity.

A little research turned up Mayflower Cranberries in Plympton, Massachusetts, where owner Jeff LaFleur opens up his family-owned, working farm to the curious for an experience he calls “Be the Grower.” When Andrea asked me to join her, I couldn’t possibly say no.

Cranberries floating in a bog

Cranberries ready for harvest.

So we signed the release form and got our confirmation email. That’s when the anxiety set in. Despite having access to the internet and my own pleasant memories of cranberry juice commercials, I honestly had no idea what lay ahead. Would I have to supply my own waders? Would I be interacting with water-loving venomous snakes (I’m a Louisiana native, so, you know…)? What if I fell in, or sank? Allaying my fears was the knowledge that Andrea and I wouldn’t be alone — in addition to the farmers, we’d be working with a group of people who also had visions of Ocean Spray commercials dancing in their heads. (Did I mention that Mayflower had a waitlist of over 120 people also wanting to Be the Growers?)

According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, cranberries are the number-one food crop of Massachusetts. This state is also where the North American cranberry industry got its start. Since cranberry vines are perennial, some farms have a vine stock that dates back over 100 years. Within Massachusetts alone, there are approximately 14,000 acres of producing bogs; 23.65 of those acres belong to Mayflower Cranberries.

The cranberry harvest typically falls in September and October. It’s during this time that the bogs are flooded to aid in the process. Water reels are driven through the bog, knocking the berries off their vines. Because cranberries contain air chambers, they float, making them much easier to collect.

Air pockets inside cranberry

Air pockets in the center of a cranberry are what make the berries buoyant and easier to harvest.

Our responsibility as temporary cranberry farmers was to use snow rakes to push the floating berries into a suction system installed below the water’s surface. This system sucks both water and berries up a tube and passes everything through machinery that separates produce from waste. Cranberries end up in the bed of a massive dump truck that, when filled, transports the berries for further processing. The water and waste is dispensed into the back of a separate truck with a grate-like filter that traps dirt and lets water flow back into the bog.

Sorting cranberries

The truck on the left filters dirt and plant matter and allows water to drain back into the bog. The truck on the right collects the harvested berries.

Despite our group of ten temporary laborers all working to push the berries toward the suction system, it never felt like we were making progress. Even when the dump truck pushed forward to accommodate another load, there were still millions of berries bobbing up and down on the water. Andrea found the experience completely Zen. After an hour of work, as we were escorted out of the bog to allow the next round of visitors their chance to help with the harvest, Andrea told one of the farmers, “That was the most cathartic thing I’ve done in years.”

Harvested cranberries

Cranberries fresh from the bog.

After all the berries have been collected, the bog will remain flooded for the winter. Leaving vines submerged protects them from New England’s winter temperatures. Cranberry farmers will cover the frozen, water-filled bogs with a layer of clean sand in a process called ice sanding. As temperatures warm, melting ice and draining flood waters will distribute the sand among the vines, stimulating new growth and doubling as natural pest control as the growing process begins again.

I’m glad I can say I know what it’s like to harvest cranberries — it was a rewarding experience, though it’s not something I need to do again. Andrea, on the other hand, won’t be crossing this one off her list any time soon. She is completely hooked.

Ash and Andrea with Cranberries

Cranberry harvesters Ash (left) and Andrea. They insist they didn’t plan to wear matching outfits.

Storey Digital Editors

We are the staff at Storey Publishing — the crafters, cooks, brewers, builders, homesteaders, gardeners, and all-around DIY-ers who make Storey books.

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