This fall, I had the immense privilege of participating in a cranberry harvest in Massachusetts and making good farmer friends in the process.
The Personal Stuff:
If you want to learn the definition of resilience, shadow an old farmer. Shake his hand. Listen to the boom of his voice. Follow his gaze. If you want to see the definition of fearlessness, attempt to keep up with that old farmer. If you want to bear witness to your own limits and timidity, attempt to help that farmer. Hold tight to the rails. Be conscious of your footing. You will hear the sound of every falling water droplet acutely and know that any one of them could lead to your misstep. But if you want to speak about the longings of the heart and soul, seek the farmer’s son or daughter.
The longings of the heart and soul were buried deeper in the older generation. They weren’t acceptable topics of conversation. They simultaneously calloused over their sensitivities as they calloused over the palms of their hands. The younger generation bore witness to it all. They sought to add meaning and purpose to the work, to honor every path carved until that point. They took the same core values to farther corners, to places that maybe didn’t make sense to their fathers. I have seen this in my own life. I have seen it in an apple orchard, and this fall, I saw it in a cranberry bog.
I went to the cranberry bog for respite. I went there to lend a hand. More realistically, I went to show my respect for those who truly work, and they graciously welcomed me into the experience. Agriculture has been glamorized by chefs, by magazines, by community gardens and farmers markets, but it’s tough work. It’s emotional work. It’s long days and mundane details mixed with bigger questions and a gamble of elements. I went to the cranberry bog for a better understanding and connection to my food, but I left with a better understanding of myself and a connection to good people.
It may seem like a dramatic conclusion for a long autumn weekend in a Massachusetts bog, but the timing was right. The cranberry processing plant determines the schedule of the harvests, and similarly, determined a scheduled time for my own processing.
I flew to Massachusetts on the tailwinds of so much unraveling. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was starting to question. I was starting to understand how I had stretched myself too thin, given myself too fully to others. No one had the answers for me, but they had the generosity to listen and process with me.
I was starting to see how I needed to stand more firmly on my own two feet, even if my own two feet were clad in waders and rubber boots. I was starting to see how the world and an inner critic will show you your limitations, but an old, weathered farmer, in the same waders and rubber boots, will show you how to buck expectations, leap over great expanses and do what you know you need to do. Be headstrong like the father. Be heartstrong like the son.
The Food Stuff, Ie: The Cranberry Harvest
- The harvest took place in mid October. Cranberries grow in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, parts of British Columbia, Quebec, and Chile.
- Cranberries don’t grow under water. They grow on vines and can be dry harvested or wet harvested. The wet harvest involves flooding the bog, hence the common association between cranberries and water. The farmers then use rakes and tools to dislodge the berries from the vine, and they float to the surface.
- Once the berries are floating, we essentially herded them toward a vacuum/pump using a system of booms.
- The berries went through a sorter before filling the truck. I helped keep the sorter free of natural debris like leaves to keep the cranberries flowing.
- Once the truck was full (!!!), we took a slow and steady drive to the plant.
From Farm to Cranberry Processing Plant:
The bulk of the cranberry harvest goes to the processing plant to be amassed under a huge brand like Ocean Spray, which will produce juice and cranberry products like sauce. I would explain the sorting process, but I’d only be explaining how little I understood this mechanized process.
The Smaller Heirloom Sorting Process:
Will and his wife Veronica reserve part of the harvest of organic, heirloom cranberries to sell at a local farmers market Veronica runs. I’ll let Will explain this part of the cranberry harvest in his own words.
“This is the antique ‘Hayden Separator’ sorting out the ‘softies.’ A good cranberry is firm and will bounce off the wooden slats out to the front, while those that are soft/bruised fall through the gaps down to the bottom. Seven shelves [on the back of the machine] equals seven chances to each prove themselves a good berry.
This gravity+wood technology is 130 years old and still works like a charm. Modern civilization only invented something more effective around the turn of the millennium, that uses air jets, lasers, and predatory financing. Oh and the bad berries? Those go to the pigs!” [lucky pigs!]
If you want to see the sorter in action, check out Will’s video.
Just the Julep Stuff:
Alas, though Julep would have been in cranberry heaven, she was unable to travel with me, but I did fall in love with Pixie, the bog dog, aka Travel-Sized Julep.