A Growing Legacy

Local cranberry farmers work to preserve a way of life, 200 years in the making.

By Maria Allen | Photography by Jack Foley

Each autumn, cranberry bogs across the South Shore turn a vibrant crimson, ushering in the annual harvest season. The tart little berries are native to New England. The earliest record of cranberry cultivation dates to 1816 when a man named Captain Henry Hall, of Dennis, noticed that the wild cranberries in his bogs grew better when sand blew over them. Captain Hall began transplanting his cranberry vines, fencing them in and spreading sand on them. This year marks the 200th anniversary of cranberry farming in Massachusetts.

Local cranberry farmers are a tight-knit community, bound by one of the oldest grower associations in the United States, the Cape Cod Cranberry Association. Many farms have been passed down through the generations. Faced with complex challenges, including pests, unfavorable weather conditions (this summer’s drought was particularly challenging) and increasing competition from out-of-state cranberry operations, local farmers are finding creative ways to survive. So important is the cranberry crop to the economy of southeastern Massachusetts that Governor Charlie Baker went so far as to launch a Cranberry Industry Revitalization Task Force earlier this year. With this year’s harvest about to begin, we spotlighted a few local farmers who are working to preserve the way of life they love.

CranGrowers_JF_9459John C. Decas

Former CEO of Decas Cranberry, Carver

How long have you/your family been farming cranberries?
Since 1934. Decas Cranberry is the longest active independent cranberry handler in the industry.

How many acres of bogs do you manage/oversee?
We manage 450 of our family-owned acres and then we contract with an additional 150 growers to deliver their cranberries to us.

What is the harvest method and what products do you sell?
At Decas Cranberry, we do both dry and wet harvesting. We are the largest dry harvest producer in the industry. The reason we dry harvest is to provide a superior, whole fresh product which allows the product to stay fresh as long as possible. We also do wet harvesting for our other products. We hold the same high standards for selecting, sorting and producing our sweetened, dried cranberries and other cranberry products that we sell to food manufacturers and use for our branded retail package.

Can you share a favorite memory of being in the cranberry business?
I went to agricultural school because I loved the family business and with the skills that I learned, I developed new practices like using helicopters to transport the dry harvested berries off of the bogs instead of buggies which were damaging to the bogs. This has now become an industry practice. One of my fondest memories is of my early experiences with frost protection. I would spend frost nights in different growers’ barns or pump houses monitoring the weather and talking about cranberry practices. I learned so much about the industry and I developed some great relationships with employees and
fellow growers.

What has been your secret to success in this business?
Success at Decas Cranberry has been due to a combination of innovation, attention to quality and a passionate commitment to our consumers, customers and growers. We are constantly looking for new ways to create products that meet our customer and consumers’ needs. Our products have our family name on them, so we have a lot of family pride and commitment to producing the best cranberries in the market. We want our consumers, whether they buy Paradise Meadow sweetened, dried cranberries in the supermarket or eat our cranberries in other brands’ granola bars, trail mixes or cookies, to have the best tasting cranberries.

As a family business, relationships are very important to us. We strive to provide the best customer service; we are responsive to our customers’ needs and we have the same commitment to our growers.

Where do you see the cranberry industry headed in the future?
Like every agricultural commodity we must develop new customers, expand our markets and develop new products. We need to be constantly looking at the marketplace domestically and globally, understanding what consumers are looking for and `creating new products that serve those needs. Cranberries have unique health benefits and the industry needs to deliver the health message more effectively.

Upcoming cranberry harvest events:

We will be exhibiting at the 13th Annual Cranberry Harvest Celebration taking place on October 8 and 9. We will also be holding recipe contests and raffles with fun prizes that celebrate the cranberry as well as the South Shore.


Domingo Fernandes

Fresh Meadows Farm, Carver

How long have you been farming cranberries?
I’ve been growing cranberries for 36 years. Both my mother’s and father’s parents worked in the cranberry industry so I grew up around the business. I didn’t set out to become a cranberry farmer though. I got my undergraduate degree in sociology from Stonehill College and an MBA from Boston University. The plan was to temporarily hold down the fort after my father passed away—but I caught the cranberry bug.

How many acres of bogs do you manage?
There are 15 acres of certified organic cranberry bogs (Fresh Meadows Farms) and 22 acres of traditionally farmed cranberries (D Fernandes Cranberries).

What is your harvest method and what products do you sell?
The organic cranberries are dry harvested using conventional pickers. We have a cleaning and sorting house with some traditional sorting machines. A lot of the sorting work is done by hand to assure that the fruit is the highest quality. We sell wholesale into the retail markets via Jonathan Organics. Locally, we sell fresh fruit at the Plymouth Farmers’ Market, at some local farm stands like Holly Hill Farm and in a number of CSAs. We are also distributed by South Shore Organics and through Market Mobile (Farm Fresh RI). Our own farm stand is open weekends in October. The traditional farmed fruit is wet harvested and sold through Ocean Spray Cranberries.

What is your harvest method and what products do you sell?
The organic cranberries are dry harvested using conventional pickers. We have a cleaning and sorting house with some traditional sorting machines. A lot of the sorting work is done by hand to assure that the fruit is the highest quality. The traditionally farmed fruit is wet harvested. We sell in bulk and in the retail market. Locally, we sell fresh fruit at the Plymouth Farmers’ Market, some local farm stands like Holly Hill Farm and in a number of CSAs. We’re also distributed by South Shore Organics and we have our own farm stand that we open up on weekends in October. Visitors can come down to watch the harvest and purchase fresh fruit at the stand.

What do you love most about cranberry farming?
Getting into the organic market has given me a whole new set of challenges. My goal is to find ways to make organic farming sustainable, but there are many challenges, particularly when it comes to managing fungal diseases and insects. We utilize a lot of water and do a lot of hand labor for weed control. Crop-wise the harvest tends to be much smaller than traditional farming methods.

Do you enjoy eating cranberries?
I like finding different ways to juice cranberries and make them palatable by combining them with various fruits and vegetables.

What has been your secret to success in this business?
I think the timing was good for getting into organic. Not only is there a growing demand of organic foods but also locally-grown products. It has allowed me to create the margins I need to be able to rely on the locally grown. It has been rewarding to develop relationships with local buyers here in Massachusetts. But I’m realistic. I have to be very careful not to take too many risks.

Where do you see the cranberry industry headed in the future?
It has been increasingly difficult for smaller farms. The last 15 years have been turbulent as there is more competition from farms in places like Canada. It’s also an older population, so as owners leave the business we need to find ways to pass these farms along to the next generation.


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Jack and Dot Angley

Flax Pond Farms, Carver

How long have you/your family been farming cranberries?
We purchased the property and the existing cranberry bogs in 1967. I was a building contractor and a student at the time. I was born and raised in Pembroke so I was always familiar with the cranberry industry. When the property became available, it just seemed like a good opportunity for a 27-year-old kid. We live right on the property.

How many acres of bogs do you manage/oversee?
We have 35 acres of cranberry bogs and we are growers for Ocean Spray. It’s a 100-acre property that has an antique screen house, which we restored. Back in the 1890s, most of the swamps were converted to cranberry bogs. We also have about 4 acres of Frasier fir Christmas trees that we grow and sell around the holidays. We also run an agrotourism business. We host bus tours of people who come to see historic artifacts like an antique cranberry separator that we have. We also have a small gift shop where we sell local products, which helps to pay the bills.

What is the harvest method and what products do you sell?
We are fresh fruit growers and use a dry-pick harvest method. We have walk-behind machines that we use. Tourists can come and watch the harvest. After the berries have been picked we have a helicopter come and pick up the 1,000-pound units and put them onto a truck.

What do you love most about cranberry farming?
I enjoy being outdoors as well as the challenge of trying to work with Mother Nature. My job is a gamble every day. I don’t know if I’m going to get up and find bugs or a frost. Sometimes it can be tough. You have to come up with creative ways to make the business profitable. It’s a lifestyle. You have to like what you do.

Where do you see the cranberry industry headed in the future?
What’s happening now is that the cranberry industry is in a bit of a bind. In my 49 years in this industry I think I’ve seen four downturns. We recently assembled a taskforce to try to come up with some sort of an exit strategy.

Upcoming cranberry harvest events:

Starting on September 3rd we will be open every day and we stay open until two weeks before Thanksgiving. We also host an arts festival on October 2nd. It’s all local artisans. There are pottery demonstrations, face painting, and the shop is open. It runs 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.  Rain or shine.


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(Left to right) Sixth generation cranberry farmer Alison Gilmore Carr stands beside her mother, Susan Gilmore, and sister, Abbie Gilmore Anderson who work at Gilmore Cranberry Company in Carver.

Susan Gilmore and Alison Gilmore Carr

Gilmore Cranberry Company, Carver

How long have you/your family been farming cranberries?
SG: I’m a fifth generation cranberry farmer. My great-great-grandfather was Abel D. Makepeace (A.D. Makepeace Company, based in Wareham, is the world’s largest cranberry grower). His sons took over the business and banded together with two other families to form Ocean Spray in 1930. I grew up in the industry and my husband and I started Gilmore Cranberry Company in 1979. My daughters Alison and Abbie are sixth generation farmers.

How many acres of bogs do you manage/oversee?
SG: I own Gilmore Cranberry Company, which has 105 acres of cranberry bog. My brother-in-law, Kirby Gilmore, owns another 50 acres through Benson Pond Farms. We are both members of Ocean Spray’s grower-owned cooperative and we manage the bogs together with other members of our family.

What is the harvest method and what products do you sell?
AC: We wet-harvest our fruit, which is the most efficient way to harvest. When you look inside a cranberry, there are four little pockets of air, which help the berries to float when the bogs are flooded. It’s a spectacular sight. The berries we harvest are used to make cranberry sauce, dried cranberries, jellies and juice.

What do you love most about cranberry farming?
SG: I love everything about it. I don’t consider it a job; it’s a lifestyle that ties us to generations past. We try to be good stewards of the land so that we can pass what we have on to the next generation.
AC: I always like to say that cranberries are part of the fabric of who I am; it’s part of my DNA. It’s an incredible feeling to look out over the bogs and know that I am a caretaker of this land that has been tended by so many generations before me.

What has been your secret to success in this business?
SG: To put it simply, consistent hard work. You have to be innovative because there are always challenges. We’ve tried to stay abreast of new farming technologies. When I was growing up we didn’t have sprinkler systems. Now with the technology of computers, we can check the temperatures on the bog with our cell phones and turn on the pump to start the sprinklers remotely. As my late husband used to say, there will always be bumps in the road, but it’s what you do when that happens that is the true mark of success.

Where do you see the cranberry industry headed in the future?
AC: I think there’s a lot of innovation happening and technology will continue to play a role in how people efficiently manage their farms. There are also some really exciting new cranberry products being put out into the marketplace now. It’s thrilling to see all the ways cranberries are being used. A lot of families in Massachusetts are coming to a point where their children are coming back to take over the farms and become the new stewards of the land.

Do you have any upcoming cranberry harvest events?
SG: I always volunteer for the Cranberry Harvest Celebration which is held on Columbus Day weekend. People can take a free wagon ride around the bogs and watch the harvest in progress. The spot where they hold the event is actually where I grew up—that was my backyard.

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Celebrate the Harvest

SEPT 17: Redbrook HarvestFest

Help us kick-off the Cranberry Harvest season! Redbrook HarvestFest held in partnership with the Old Colony YMCA and Ocean Spray Cranberries each September during the first weekend of harvest. 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

OCT 8-9: Cranberry Harvest Celebration

Enjoy old-fashioned family fun with food, live music, juried crafters, paddleboat rides on Tihonet Pond; watch the cranberry harvest and more. Co-sponsored by the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association and Ocean Spray. 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tickets $10; $5 seniors or military; children under 7 are free. 158 Tihonet Road, Wareham

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MAJOR EVENTS IN THE HISTORY OF MASSACHUSETTS CRANBERRY PRODUCTION

1816

Captain Henry Hall first cultivated cranberries in Dennis


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First record of ice sanding on bogs and flooding first used to control insects and prevent frost damage.


1843

Eli Howes cultivates the Howes variety of cranberry in East Dennis, which is still the most popular fresh fruit berry.


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Cyrus Cahoon cultivates Early Black variety of cranberry in Harwich (until the 1990s this was the most popular variety in the state).


1887

“Snap Scoop” invented, providing the first alternative to picking cranberries by hand.


1888

Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association formed.


BrooksAcademyMuseum72016_AB_1612Clip1890s

Wooden cranberry scoops invented.


1907

First market cooperative, New England Cranberry Sales Company, founded.


1910

University of Massachusetts Cranberry Research Station established in Wareham.


1920

First mechanical harvester, the Mathewson Picker, invented (it enjoyed limited use).


1930

Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. formed as a grower-owned marketing cooperative.


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1947

Walk-behind mechanical dry harvesters first used, replacing hand scoops.


1959

Cranberry scare causes industry market crash.



1960s

First successful water harvesting. Sprinkler systems installed on most bogs and market expands as cranberry products diversify.

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1970s

Integrated Pest Management programs developed.


1980s

Demand for cranberry products, led by the juice market, continues to rise.


1990s

Diversified cranberry products, particularly dried cranberries, become ingredients in other foods and global demand for cranberry products begins to grow.


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2000s

Growth of export markets increases to more than 30 percent of total production and automatic irrigation systems are first utilized.


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Cranberry Industry Revitalization Task Force organized by Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association commemorates the 200th anniversary of commercial cranberry growing in Massachusetts.

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