Cranberry Industry Growing Fast in Washington County

By Terry Hussey

Cranberries are the coming industry in Washington County, according to Gordon Kelley, speaking to 45 members and guests of the Milbridge Historical Society at their September 9 meeting at the museum. Kelley is a small grower with about eight acres of land planted in cranberries, with more than four acres in production. "Already there are five or six viable cranberry farms in Washington County," said Kelley.

One can see remnants today of cranberry bogs from back in the early 1900’s, and from some built in the 1950’s when the area almost had a viable cranberry industry. He said that a cancer scare in the 1950’s halted the industry at that time.

Today even the big companies like Ocean Spray are sending representative to Maine to get on the action. They are hoping to buy berries from the many small producers. Kelley said that Harvard University is expected to release a study soon that will show that consumption of cranberries is beneficial in preventing heart disease and cancer. This should be a major boost to the industry,

Kelley noted that if Cherryfield Foods develops the 900 acres they have permits for, Maine could become a major producer, moving from 10th on the list of cranberry growing states, to fifth. Every acre under cultivation means more jobs. Cherryfield Foods $35 million project could mean 75 full time workers.

Maine well suited for cranberries

Kelley said that Maine is very well suited for growing cranberries. The weather is good for production. There is plenty of land available, and there are people who want to work. "It’s the kind of work that makes you feel good," said Kelley. "The more you put into it, the more you get out of it." The berries are in great demand, because there is a general shortage.

"Our season is clearly 2-3 weeks behind that of Massachusetts in the spring," said Kelley, "but by the 4th of July, our crops have caught up or are ahead of theirs. By fall, we can harvest sooner than they can." Kelley predicted that this year’s harvest would be ready by the first week of October.

Like blueberries, cranberries are a biennial crop. At the same time that the plant is producing berries, it is also producing buds that will become next year’s crop. Unlike blueberries, cranberry plants produce berries every year. Also, cranberry plants are not as winter-hardy as blueberries. In the dead of winter, the plants must be covered with water and frozen to protect them from the chilling winds which would freeze and kill next year’s crop.

Kelley explained that cranberries like sandy soil or peat. The best land is flat land that can be easily flooded. Often cranberry bogs are built in terraces, so that the same water can be used repeatedly to flood various levels. Getting the proper permits to create the bog has been an arduous process, but one that is getting somewhat easier now. Kelley said that when he first applied for a permit, the state had no idea who should issue the permit and how to do it. The state has now simplified the process, as a means of encouraging new growers to enter the industry.

Kelley noted that there are a number of hybrid varieties of cranberries grown in Maine now, supplementing the Crowley variety which was once the industry standard. Each variety has a different taste and different growing characteristics. Some varieties produce 150-200 barrels of 100 pounds each per acre, while others produce up to 300 barrels or more per acre.

New plants can be created by putting sand over the long runners that grow on an existing plant. The new plants grow so well that eventually they must be thinned. The most difficult problems for small growers are controlling weeds and bugs, according to Kelley. Large growers have experts in the field to identify pests and control them. Small growers have to learn by experience. He said that pest-specific chemicals can be used to deal with infestations, but that the chemicals are closely controlled by the Maine Board of Pesticide Control. He said weed killer is applied in the early spring to prevent the growth of weeds.

Plants flooded for harvest and for winter protection

The plants are not flooded until fall when they are ready to be picked. A mechanical harvester is used to sweep over the floating berries and gather them into a boom, something like the log booms that were used on local rivers in river drives. Growers often band together to buy or lease the expensive harvesting machine. There are companies that do nothing but harvest, providing their own equipment. In this area, growers all work very cooperatively, sharing equipment, supplies, and knowledge.

In winter, after the harvest, the plants are flooded again with about four inches of water to protect them from the howling winds of winter. March is another critical time, as the warming temperatures begin new growth, but freezing is still a serious concern, so the grower must be sure his plants are covered.

Kelley said that cranberries keep well in the refrigerator for up to a year or more, or freeze easily with no preparation.

"Within the next few years, we are going to see some serious production of berries here. Having big players like Cherryfield Foods and Wyman’s enter the field will help to kick the industry along," said Kelley. "Some people are going to make some serious money with cranberries."