Heritage Cranberry: A Thanksgiving TraditionThis week, the majority of Americans make the journey home or to places considered home to partake in the annual traditions of feasting and the giving of thanks. A kick starter to the holiday season, one can usually find turkey, stuffing, candied yams, gravy, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and puddings at a Thanksgiving feast. You are more than likely familiar with this menu because you have woken up with a food baby of said items from last night's dinner table and/or are getting ready to make a delicious Thanksgiving sandwich with the remaining leftovers (after some breakfast pumpkin pie). Another staple ingredient to the feast table is cranberries. Whole, canned, jellied - cranberries are the sweet and tart glue that brings turkey and all the trimmings together. Known for its perfect attendance during Thanksgiving, cranberries have also proven its staying power throughout the year in the form of dried craisins, preserves, juices, wines, chocolate-covered, and yogurt-covered variants. Not only are they delicious and harbingers of health benefits enough to classify it as a superfood, cranberries during harvest season are beyond beautiful. I had the opportunity to visit one of the longest running cranberry and blueberry farms in New Jersey, Moore's Meadow, to learn more about the brilliantly red and nutrient rich cranberry. First meeting Neva Moore in DC during the Ocean Spray cranberry tour, she welcomed a visit to her family's farm during one of the most beautiful times of year on the farm - harvest season. The art and work of cranberries is a rich and labor intensive process. It connects all who are involved to the majesty and complexity of growing things from the earth. I also learned that the process teaches patience, discipline, resourcefulness, rhythm, and community in ways that are unique to the agricultural sector.
One of three native fruits to North America, cranberries have a multifaceted history in form and function. Referred to as sassamenesh, ibimi,bearberries, fenberries, andcraneberries at different stages in history, the contemporary moniker refers to the red fruit as cranberries. While 95 percent of the harvested fruit is turned into juices and sauces, 5 percent is sold fresh. Today, the cranberry industry is estimated to be valued at $300 million. Though farm ownership and operation runs independently, farms like Moore's Meadow participate in Ocean Spray, a 750-farmer cooperative, that markets and distributes cranberries from farms across New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. Beginning in 1815, Moore's Meadow has been in the family for seven generations.
Run by Sam Moore Sr., Neva Moore, and Sam Moore (Jr), these three have dedicated their lives to continuing the tradition and business. An interesting mix of sentimental heritage and business-minded grit, the long-term question of continuing the cranberry business dances between the two partners of tradition and economic profitability.Between 40-50 families grow cranberries in the Pine Barrens (or affectionately dubbed Piney's) located in southern New Jersey. The Piney's consist of 650,000 acres of sandy soil, wetlands, and pine trees perfect for digging bogs and growing berries. A heritage industry, the most potent and valuable knowledge is passed down farmer to farmer and parent to child. Day in and day out, family and staff spends considerable time together in the bogs and on the trucks. In that process year after year, pieces of the baton get handed down the line to the next generation who will continue the farm. In passing another bog at Moore's Meadow, I noticed Sam's (Jr.) son (also named Sam) out in the bog with his waders actively engaged in the harvest. Sam says that his son already knows he wants to go into the cranberry business. However, he needs to get his education first. And then, if he still wants to do this, he can come back to the farm. [gallery type="rectangular" ids="1470,1471"]
The growing and harvesting process is quite fascinating. The harvest season takes place in October and involves several weeks worth of long and hard work beginning each day at 6am. The harvest ends when all the bogs are cleared and barrels of berries are shipped off at the end of the month. When I asked Neva what kind of recipes she makes, Neva mentioned that one of the fun parts of the season is sending bags of raw berries to friends, family, and neighbors. And inevitably, friends, family, and neighbors always share their creations with her so she has never really had to cook or bake with the berries.
1. Dig & Plant
First, you need enough acreage to be able to excavate bogs 5-6 feet deep and build a reliable irrigation system. Most bogs average between 4-6 acres each and take about two years to dig. Moore's Meadow has expanded from 80 acres to now include 700 acres of land (60 acres belong to cranberries while 40 belong to blueberries). Once the bog is dug in, the farmers plant the cranberry vines in rows. Sam describes the fragility of cranberry growing, "Plant as much acreage as you want but it is about the yield. It is like a baby. You can't leave it. It needs to be nurtured and the bogs need to be constantly monitored.
Crimson Queen, Mullica Queen, and Demoranville are a few of the regal sounding names of newer cranberry varietals that could pass for the labels to a fashion designer's collection. While these newer varietals boast higher output, Moore's Meadow specializes in the hybrid Stevens varietal, which produces between 300-350 barrels per acre. Once the vines are planted, it takes 5-7 years for the plant to mature for harvest. If properly cared for, the perennial vine can live and produce for up to 150 years. Sam (Jr.) talks about pruning the vines and doing their best to use every part of the plant. He says of pruning, "We use the strength that's been clipped from those vines to strengthen the new generation of fruit." Put THAT in a fortune cookie or leadership book. Profundity is found in the simplest of statements and this is just fact for them.
2. Flood & Beat
Once the vines are mature, each bog is flooded in sequence using a grid of canals. The bog is filled with water and an egg beater vehicle goes down row by row gently prodding the berries off the vine. The result of the egg beater is that the berries are picked off the vines and the natural air bubble that exists inside all cranberries helps the cranberries float to the surface of the water.
In addition to the egg beater, farmers dress in waterproof waders and wellies to help guide the harvest. I found there to be an interesting connection between harvesting gear designed with function in mind and the fashion industry's take on form and function with thigh high boots to give attitude, longer lines, and warmth to one's legs during the wintry seasons.
3. Harvest & Sort
Once the cranberries are let loose and afloat, the farmers bring wooden planks made out of cedar wood and create a ring (diamond, pentagon, hexagon) around the berries. The planks are used as a shifting ring to push and gather the cranberries onto the conveyer belt.
The conveyer belt lifts the berries into a processor and cleaning machine where they are sorted, separated from the chaff (leaves, twigs, debris) and then moved onto the loading truck. Sam Moore Sr. built the conveyer belt/cleaning machine combo to efficiently sort the berries from the chaff and ensure that they were sending off true barrels of berries.
The bog that we witnessed being harvested was approximately 6.5 acres and yielded about 1700 barrels of cranberries. Sam Moore Sr. indicated that 2012 was a very good year and to date, 2013 has been a respectable harvest. In the video below, you can see how Sam helps the cleaning machine along using a cedar plank to feed the cranberries into the sorter. The chaff falls off into collection buckets and basically anywhere the wind takes it creating a thick layer of dust and debris on the truck and ground below. The cranberries are loaded on a giant truck and carted off to the receiving station.
4. Ship & Send
Dry harvested cranberries are sold whole at market. Wet harvested cranberries (majority of Moore's Meadow berries) are frozen at the receiving station and then turned into jellies, sauces or craisins. When asked about Moore's Meadow's legacy and why Sam Moore (Jr) continues the family business, he knows he is part of a generations-deep tradition but the lineage isn't what gets him up in the morning. Rather, it is a cranberry juice cocktail of drive to see profitability longterm, the satisfaction of hard work and accountability that comes with the territory, and a genuine admiration and affection for his father. Sam points to a fire that occurred in 1954 which destroyed a ton of acreage. He also described how he saw his father revive every inch of the land to build it to what it is today. Sam firmly believes that you have to want it, to want the work and the land. Sam says, "There are moments of glory and moments where you want to throw in the towel for the right price and right circumstances. But this is my life. This is really a labor of love."