Friday, August 31, 2007
A Carlisle farmer's cranberry diary
Newcomers to Carlisle are often surprised to learn that their new hometown owns a Cranberry Bog. How did this come about? Does it actually produce and sell a crop? Who farms it and why? Settled residents are probably aware of the answers, but how much do they really know about the business the town is in?
Most of the pertinent facts about the Bog's history, terrain, natural resources and legal status can be found in the 130-page "Baseline Assessment of the Cranberry Bog" recently compiled by the Carlisle Land Stewardship Committee and referenced liberally in the preparation of this article. The main focus here, however, will be on the season to season functioning of the bog, and the commercial climate in which it operates; but first, a necessary glimpse at the historical background of the only functioning bog in Middlesex County.
A brief history
The present 150-acre conservation land has a century-long history as a producing bog and adjoining holding ponds. A Bog House is used for storage of equipment, off-and-on housing for employees and, in its early days as a dance hall. The parcel represents almost half of an original farm that included 158 acres in Chelmsford. That town's Cranberry Bog Reservation currently encompasses woodlands, wetlands, streams and ponds upon which the Carlisle Bog depends.
Following at least three changes in farm ownership over the century, and a threat that the 1985 owner might sell the entire property to developers, the towns of Carlisle and Chelmsford came to an agreement to buy the property, developed a management plan and applied for partial state funding. During prolonged negotiations Chelmsford received its state grant and Carlisle did not, but that is a long story.
In recommending the purchase, the Carlisle Conservation Commission gave a four-point rationale, namely: preservation of open space and rural ambience, retention of surface and underground water resources, preservation of wildlife habitat and addition of areas for passive recreation. Town Meeting authorized the acquisition. At the time, with cranberry prices approaching $60 per hundred-pound barrel, there was some expectation of modest commercial profits.
Today, the agricultural area includes 19 acres in active production, 21 acres in various stages of restoration, portions of two holding ponds, associated dams, dikes and flumes, and pedestrian trails around and through the maze. Paths meander through the woodlands and connect with trails in Chelmsford. The property is open to the public from dawn to dusk, and is popular with hikers, bikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, bird watchers and cross-country skiers.
During the two-year hiatus of bargaining over state funding, the town signed two short but unsuccessful agricultural leases, including one attempt at organic farming. With the agricultural portion of the property deteriorating and the bog infrastructure in disrepair, the town signed the first of two long-range leases with farmer Mark Duffy, past and present lessee of the dairy at Great Brook Farm State Park.
Under the present 20-year lease signed in 1995, as well as the 1987 version that preceded it, Carlisle Cranberries, Inc. is not required to return any set percent of gross revenue, but will "pay rent in kind by reconstructing, renovating and cultivating the agricultural area" in accordance with an attached management plan. As for the higher-producing upper bog, that plan specifies that Duffy will "repair or replace the flume, maintain dikes, put in new ones, improve drainage, level some sectors, build a bypass canal, reduce weeds and maintain or improve yields." As for mention of the lower bog, he is to "renovate as necessary," finish construction of the new dike, and install water control structures and irrigation systems.
Asked what renovations have been accomplished since he assumed responsibility, Duffy stressed development of a permanent irrigation system, which called for digging out all the clogged ditches and replacing five water control structures with new aluminum ones. Non-producing plants in the upper bog were removed and replaced, and the whole sanded, as required. The new dike was completed after an expensive problem with delivered fill materials that proved defective and a demand from the state that he replace them. The least-productive portion of the lower bog nearest to Curve Street was stripped, regraded, leveled and sanded, but the collapse of prices for cranberries at the turn of the 21st century made further progress in that area impractical in the ensuing years. Duffy reports that by the state's estimates, it requires a $30,000 investment per acre to redo a bog, and 14 years to get the investment back. Massachusetts growers (as against those in Wisconsin, New Jersey or Canada) have up to 100-year-old cranberry vines with lower productivity. If budgets allow, the state is planning to award grants of up to 50% of cost to encourage updating. Meanwhile they are carrying on research at the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Bog Experiment Station to find ways to cut those costs. Duffy is considering applying for a grant, depending on what the state finds it can afford to offer and, above all, on the price he can reasonably anticipate for his berries.
10-fold price swings
According to Duffy, the price swings have gone from 58 cents a pound when he assumed the lease in 1987, to a high of 86 cents in the mid nineties and a disastrous 8 cents in the early 2000's. He estimates last Fall's take at about 30 cents. More is charged for the small preliminary harvest of dry berries that the farmer picks to sell to local customers at the Great Brook Farm Stand. The break-even point for wet berries as calculated by the state is in the low 30s.
A year at the Cranberry Bog
To get an idea of what is involved in producing a cranberry crop, the interviewer asked Duffy to step through his annual calendar of activities. The crop year begins around Christmas when the wind blows cold and the roots begin to freeze: that is the time to let water flow in and inundate the plants to protect them from winter kill. Once the ice is thick enough , the grower lets the water out "to allow the plants to breathe." If a warm spell threatens the protective covering, the process has to be repeated. When the icy security blanket is sufficiently thick to bear weight, a one-inch layer of sand is spread over the surface.
As spring approaches and melts the ice, the 300 irrigation heads are reopened, and Duffy starts a second frost watch. Like fruit growers in southern climes, when the specter of a freeze looms, the sprinkler heads must be turned on to form a glittering protective shell. Later, with the threat of frost past, Duffy is free to handle routine maintenance on the roads, dikes and pedestrian trails. It is also the start of a summer-long battle to control weeds, insects and plant disease
As required in his lease and promised in the management plan, use of all fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides is carried out following Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques designed to reduce the use of such substances to the lowest level consistent with a successful outcome.
Duffy hires an IPM consultant to perform weekly inspections that include soil testing, evaluation of plant tissues, pest alerts and recommendations for remediation. For example, Duffy reports that regular "sweeps" are made to spot the presence of destructive insects and, when the threat reaches a given threshold, a pesticide recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is chosen. Most such substances are applied by "chemigation," in which the carefully directed sprinklers are used to spray a solution at night when rented honey bees are in their hives on the periphery of the bog and most other wild life in their burrows. Where a more toxic chemical is required, it is applied by hand-wiping.
During the warm, dry weather the bog is irrigated early each morning to give the plants their required one inch of water per week, and more during heat spells. Summer is also time for maintenance projects and for countering the architectural activities of beavers and muskrats. According to Duffy, beaver dams are anathema to complicated irrigation systems, and muskrats are often worse, because they make their abodes out of mud and work in teams.
As the calendar slides into fall, the farmer again needs to keep an eye on temperature and irrigate if the thermometer drops to 32 degrees. Duffy adds that once he turns on the sprinklers, sleep is impossible, because he must now stay at the helm until the sun rises. Fortunately fall offers spiritual respite to both grower and spectator, as the ripening red berries turn the bog-scape to a hue an Impressionist painter would love. Anyone unfamiliar with the site should choose this time to go for a family walk.
The limited dry harvest begins in mid-October. For the primary wet harvest that follows, the 300 irrigation heads are removed to start the flooding. The bog must be flagged to indicate the direction of the harvest, and mark the low points. "We don't want the workers to step over their depth or damage the machines," Duffy explains.
As the harvest proceeds, low areas are flooded first and water is added slowly to match the height of the bushes. Duffy says it takes about two days to knock off the berries. Then, standing waist high in water, the crew corrals them using booms and moves them toward the conveyer belt. As the shiny, Christmas-red fruit fills the 100-pound barrels, Duffy drives them to their commercial destination in Carver, Massachusetts, making trip after trip as the harvest progresses. However, the last truckload does not signal the end. A mandatory follow-up requires removing the debris from the conveyor, picking up or "booming" the twigs and leaves left floating in the water and, finally, raking and mowing between the rows of vines.
Given the annual workload traced here, one wonders, "How much help does Duffy have?" The farmer explains that his workers divide their time between the task of the moment at either the bog or the dairy. With that in mind, the answer is two permanent employees and some seasonal, part-time labor. Asked how many workers it takes to complete the harvest, and whether he has any trouble finding them, he says he needs at least five, including himself, and yes, they are definitely hard to find. Thus his family is often pressed into service, Christopher and Blake and University of Vermont daughter Marlowe.
Marketing activities, including pricing and on rare occasion quotas, are handled by the Cranberry Marketing Committee in Wareham, a mostly elected group of growers under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A spokesman for the committee last week predicted an excellent cranberry crop this year, but hedged his prophesy by warning the media that pests, drought or other extreme weather constitute a constant threat to a rosy prediction.
Talking to Duffy in the popular ice cream stand, run by Tamma, the interviewer found him characteristically articulate about his underlying motivations. "Preservation of agriculture in Massachusetts is important for environmental reasons, as a source of local food resources and for the groundwater recharge that is vital to towns like ours. Cranberry growing, like dairying, is one key component in keeping agriculture in Massachusetts." Speaking with more emotion, he recalled growers he has met who have farmed the same land for 13 or 14 generations, but are struggling today
On the practical side, Duffy's expertise is clearly recognized in the agricultural community and beyond. He is one of three farmers appointed by the governor to a Dairy Revitalization Task Force established by the legislature to try to keep dairy farming alive and healthy in the Bay State.
To his fellow Carlisleans Duffy's message is simple: "I appreciate having the use of town property. It is a beautiful spot, and our goal is to leave things better than they were when we came."
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito