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A red sea of fruit: It’s cranberry harvest at Sugar Hill

Posted Oct. 19, 2012, at 1:39 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 19, 2012, at 9:23 p.m.

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Cranberries ready to be harvested in Down East Maine.
Tom Walsh | BDN
Cranberries ready to be harvested in Down East Maine.
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Cranberries ready to be harvested in Down East Maine. Buy Photo
It's cranberry harvest time in Down East Maine. Christine Alexander is immersed in the Sugar Hill Cranberry Co.'s efforts to bring to market top-quality Maine cranberries.
Tom Walsh | BDN
It's cranberry harvest time in Down East Maine. Christine Alexander is immersed in the Sugar Hill Cranberry Co.'s efforts to bring to market top-quality Maine cranberries. Buy Photo
Cranberries ready to be harvested in Down East Maine.
Tom Walsh | BDN
Cranberries ready to be harvested in Down East Maine. Buy Photo

COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — The biggest problem Christine and John Alexander seem to have in marketing their Sugar Hill Farm cranberries is running out of product.

For the past seven years, the couple have been tending five cranberry bogs within 10-plus acres tucked away in a remote area off Tibbetstown Road in the Washington County community of Columbia Falls. On Wednesday, John Alexander was busy pumping an estimated 20,000 pounds of berries from a flooded, two-acre bog into a truck for delivery to a local processor for rendering into juice and the makings of canned cranberry sauce.

What little money there is to be made in cranberry farming, John says, is in “dry harvest” berries, those found every fall at farmers markets and in grocery produce aisles. They are harvested either with rakes or with walk-behind mechanical pickers before the same acres are flooded for the “wet harvest,” which recovers the berries left behind by the dry harvest. The cranberries John trucked this week to processors bring slightly more than 30 cents a pound, while labor-intensive dry berries command $1.50 to $3 a pound.

“Last November, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we brought a couple of thousand pounds [of dry berries] to the New Amsterdam Market in New York City, which is held at the old Fulton Fish Market,” Christine said. “There were thousands of people there, and they hadn’t seen this variety of cranberry. They thought they were cherries or radishes because they were so big. At $3 a pound, people were telling us they were too cheap, and we sold out quickly.”

They also sold out quickly at this year’s Fryeburg Fair. Wet weather precluded early harvesting of many dry berries before the annual event, which this fall ran between Sept. 30 and Oct. 7, Christine said.

“I’ve been getting requests for berries since August from people who don’t want to miss out,” Christine said. “I just shipped 20 pounds to Washington state and have used FedEx and UPS to ship berries to places as far away as San Diego and Houston.”

While 10-plus acres and five bogs may not seem like much, there are now less than 250 acres of cranberry bogs in all of Maine. An estimated 85 percent, or roughly 187 acres, of Maine’s total cranberry acreage is in Washington County.

The Alexanders are among only 30 growers statewide, with half of Maine’s cranberry acreage owned by Washington County’s Cherryfield Foods, which harvests bogs established through the expertise of John Alexander.

“In the 1860s, at the end of the Civil War, the first cranberry bogs in Maine were established on 60 acres in Alfred,” Christine said. “They were established with wild cranberry plants that were transplanted from wild areas throughout Maine. The berries were shipped by sea to Boston in 100-pound wooden barrels and from there went to Cuba. There were [more than] 1,500 acres of cranberry bogs in Maine at the end of the 1900s, but now it’s less than 250.”

Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to New England, the others being wild blueberries and Concord grapes. There are 130 varieties of cranberries, and the Sugar Hill Cranberry Co. nurtures only three — Howes, which is an 1840s-era Cape Cod variety; Stephens, which was developed in the 1950s in Wisconsin; and Pilgrim, the largest, sweetest and most colorful of the many varieties.

This week’s Sugar Hill harvest was delayed by Tuesday’s heavy rainfall in Washington County. On Wednesday, when Christine went to fire up the “reeler” that separates the water-suspended berries from their vines, the mechanical beast was waterlogged and wouldn’t start. John pulled the Honda engine, and Christine took it to town. The fix wound up being a $1.50 fuse, but the equipment meltdown cost the Alexanders almost a full day of harvest time. Such is farming, they said.

Sugar Hill is a family affair. John and Christine do most of the heavy lifting during the weeklong harvest, with help from son Kyle. They also recruit the help of friends like Ken and Nonie Silsby of Osborn, who sort dry berries, do field work and package and deliver dry berries to grocery stores in the Bangor area. Ken says he enjoys being out in the bogs after his 15 acres of wild blueberries have been harvested.

Once this year’s cranberries have been harvested, the bogs will be drained, allowing the vines to, in effect, catch their breath. Around Thanksgiving, the bogs will be flooded, awaiting winter temperatures that will form an insulating layer of ice that will ward off winter-kill. The unfrozen water beneath the ice will be drained, trapping enough oxygen to sustain the vines. Sand spread on top of the ice will settle as the ice melts, stimulating new vine growth in the spring.

University of Maine Extension is predicting that the state’s 2012 cranberry crop will weigh in at 2.5 million pounds. While shy of the 2010 record harvest of 3 million pounds, that yield would be slightly better than last year’s harvest of just under 2.4 million pounds.

The Alexanders are planning to bring their cranberries to the Bangor Harvest Festival, which will be Nov. 10-11, at the Bangor Auditorium & Civic Center. They also be plan to showcase a 1930s-era cranberry separator at that event.

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