Cranberry Fields Forever? Maybe, If Howard Morse Has It His Way
On Thanksgiving Day Americans will consume an estimated 19,000 tons of cranberries in sauce, pies, drinks and stuffing. Somebody has to make sure that craving can be met. Howard Morse Jr., a third-generation cranberry farmer from North Attleborough, Mass., is just such a man. "Cultivating cranberries is a 24-hour-a-day job nine months a year," says Morse, 55. "We eat, sleep and drink cranberries."
Morse, a former chairman of the board of directors of Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., the nation's largest processor of the tart little fruit, also talks cranberries, fluently. "Their color is unique, natural and native," says Morse, warming to his message that the berries are as American as—heck, more American than—apple pie. New England Indians used cranberries in dyes and poultices and mixed them with venison to make pemmican, "the C ration of the day," says Morse. The Pilgrims may have eaten cranberries at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, although, he notes, "they didn't keep menus in those days." Colonists sent 10 barrels as a gift to King Charles II, and whaling captains carried the rot-resistant fruit, a source of vitamin C, to help belay scurvy.
Although there is little scientific support for Morse's tongue-in-cheek claim that cranberries are an aphrodisiac, the life cycle of the domesticated cranberry is fraught with romance. The vines thrive in peat bogs and grow best when the peat is layered with a few inches of sand. Vines planted in May bloom 14 months later in July, with flowers that look like a crane's head and beak. "That's the most popular explanation for the name," says Morse. "Over the years crane berry was shortened to cranberry." Honeybees are rented to pollinate the plants, a ticklish problem. "Pollination occurs at peak bloom," says Morse. "Most bees are hired from apiaries and you need at least one hive per acre. If the fog sets in and the bees won't work, you're in trouble. I remember my uncle sitting in a bog once swatting at one lone bee with his hat and muttering, 'Over there.' "
In Massachusetts, harvesting begins after Labor Day. In the past whole clans gathered in the bog to comb the berries from the vines with specially made hand scoops. Nowadays Morse and other local producers mostly "wet-harvest" by flooding the fields, then agitating the vines with custom-made, gas-powered Rube Goldberg contraptions to loosen the berries. "There's not enough volume for International Harvester to make a picking machine for us, so we have to be our own designer, machinist and repairman," says Morse. The jolted berries float to the surface, where they're herded by booms, then lifted by conveyors onto semitrailers for transport to the Ocean Spray processing plant in Middleborough, Mass.
Every berry's big moment of truth is the bounce test, when it is given the opportunity to bounce off the conveyor and into production. Sound berries bounce, rotten or split berries don't.
For strained jelly sauce, the berries are cooked in eight 300-gallon kettles. Year-round the plant turns out more than a quarter-million bottles of drinks a day, including Cranberry Juice Cocktail, the company's biggest seller, which is made from frozen berries.
With sales of $363 million this year, the corporation has fully recouped from the cranberry scare of 1959, when headlines announced prior to Thanksgiving that a weed killer being used by some growers could cause cancer in rats. Sales dropped 20 percent. The crisis prompted Ocean Spray to review pesticides and herbicides used by growers and to diversify into less seasonal products than sauces, such as drinks, now 60 percent of annual sales.
The relatively small scale and inefficiencies of cranberry farming—there are 900 U.S. growers—help keep it profitable. "Unlike corn, which you can plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, cranberries take from three to five years to the first harvest," says Morse. If you try something new, you don't know for a while if it's going to work." Corn farmers, Morse notes, "are going broke from doing their job too well."
With all his 1,450 tons of berries in, Morse can now rest easy for a few weeks in the two-story Colonial home he shares with his wife, Joan. Gone for now are nightmares of a cranberry-destroying frost. During winter Morse hunts duck, cross-country skis, and prepares for next year's growing season by sanding his bogs, which are spread over 225 acres in eight Massachusetts townships. Meanwhile he's preparing for next week's Thankgiving dinner, which, in addition to a turkey, will feature cranberry sauce, Cape Codders (cranberry juice and vodka), cranberry cocktail with lime sherbet, and cranberry pie. Next month, as you might have guessed, the family will string cranberry-and-popcorn strands on their Christmas tree.
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