Thursday, September 29, 2016

Drought bogging you down?

I had a recent conversation with a gym pal who’d just returned from a vacation camping trip to South Dakota. She told me that she’d been talking to some locals, who were farmers. After telling her about how they were always watching the weather and crop news to see what was up with soybeans, they asked her what we grew in Massachusetts.

Like most good residents of our fair commonwealth would be, Dee was at something of a loss.

Most of what we grow, after all, are college degrees, software, in-patient days, financial instruments, or something in a petri dish at a bio-tech. Oh, we make some food, but Marshmallow Fluff is not exactly a crop.

I told her she should have told them cranberries.

While we haven’t been #1 for a while – the top cranberry growing state is Wisconsin, of all prlaces – we remain the country’s second largest producer of cranberries. We’re the headquarters of Ocean Spray (the world’s largest cranberry processor) –  quick, name another company that’s associated with cranberries – and we have a road called the Cranberry Highway. Plus, when you drive down to the Cape, you will likely pass a number of bogs.

Then there’s the fact that, given that Thanksgiving was invented here, we do kind of own the whole cranberry thing, don’t we?

And while we may not be #1 in the world as a producer, cranberries are, in fact, our #1 crop.

But, as we observe “the 200th anniversary of the world’s first known commercial cultivation”, the cranberry business has somewhat soured.

Oh, there are the usual suspects:

In the birthplace of the industry, many Massachusetts growers whose families have tended bogs for generations are in ‘‘dire straits,’’ facing challenges that include rising production costs, decreasing crop values, changing consumer habits, and increasing competition from other states and Canada, a task force recently reported. (Source: Boston Globe)

Yeah, well, thanks, Wisconsin. It wasn’t enough for you to hog dairy farming, you had to come compete on cranberries. And, while we’re on that subject, just what sort of ocean spray are your cranberries experiencing out there in Dairyland? Harrumph. I thought not…

What’s been an add-on problem this year, however, is the drought we’ve been having. Little snow last winter, and almost no rain since then. Sure, it was nice to have all those sunny days this summer – other than the fact that a lot of them were scorchers – but the downside is that there’s lot of brown grass, droopy trees, and withered plants. The news regularly features reporters standing in the middle of a reservoir with no water in it. No, it’s not as if we’ve turned into California or Phoenix, but some cities have had to go out and buy water.

What I hadn’t realized until I read this article is that cranberries actually don’t grow in those watery bogs. They:

…grow on vines and are typically wet-harvested by farmers who flood the dry bogs with water.

Flooding those bogs means using up water we don’t just have sitting around in our aquifers. And that costs money.

And once those cranberries are harvested – even if there are fewer than usual, due to the drought – there’s too much supply for the demand.

I don’t contribute a ton of demand on that supply.

I like dried cranberries in salad, so I usually have some around. On Thanksgiving, I sometime make a batch of cranberry sauce to add to the groaning board. I drink cranberry juice, and on the rare occasion I order a drive other than wine, it’s probably going to be a Cape Codder (vodka and cranberry juice). Cranberry soda’s good, too. And while it’s not to everyone’s taste, I occasionally have a hankering for Cranberry Bog ice cream, which you can get a few places on the Cape.

In all likelihood, fewer of the cranberries I’m demanding will be native. Our bogs are aging, and in need of renovation if we’re going to compete with the unlikely likes of Wisconsin. As it stands, “Massachusetts has the lowest yield per acre of any major growing state.” Probably because our two-hundred year old bogs are all tuckered out and, this year, just plain dehydrated. Still, there are plenty of cranberry growers who want to keep with it, so that they can hand the farm down to the next generation.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon at play out in Western Massachusetts, where – believe it or not – there are a number of tobacco farms. My husband’s aunt and uncle had one. They converted theirs to a golf course, but a number of Uncle Bill’s cousins were still farming when Jim and I were regular visitors out there, so I got to see what goes on in the fields and in the barns when the tobacco’s being “fired.” (It’s actually scary – and can get out of control. On one visit, we were awoken in the middle of the night by fire engines come to fight a fire at a barn down the road.)

Those tobacco farms I used to visit were handed off to the next generation, and now the next-next generation’s lining up to take over.

Why anyone would want to stick with such back-breaking and not colossally lucrative labor – and I imagine cranberry growing is the same – is beyond me. But I’ve always been a city girl…

Anyway, I’m sorry to see that the drought has been bogging down our cranberry industry. Meanwhile, I promise to do my bit to keep demand up. Next time I buy juice, it’ll be cranberry.

No comments: