July 17, 2019
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Bumper crop for Maine cranberry growers

TROY, Maine — There’s a little love in every cranberry grown by Stan Luce and Jen Wixson at Highland Farms of Troy.

That’s partly because of the effort the couple puts into tending their two cranberry bogs without using pesticides or herbicides. They dry harvest the tart, dark red berries that will be used fresh in cooking and baking — wet harvested berries, in contrast, generally are processed into juice and sauce.

But it’s also there because the two small cranberry bogs located off the Bangor Road in Troy are where the couple first met. Nineteen years ago, he was planting the bogs with cranberry seedlings and she was a beekeeper.

“I wanted to know if he wanted my honeybees [to help with pollination],” Wixson said. “I remember thinking, ‘what an interesting man.’”

Romance didn’t bloom for them back then, although the cranberry blossoms did. Both were married to other people. But they did become friends and after they each got divorced they began to date. Later, they consolidated their farms before getting married in 2011.

“It was a combustible farming romance — that’s really what it is,” Wixson, now 60, said. “The cranberries are really the fruition of our love.”

At Highland Farms of Troy, she and Luce, 65, have several different ventures, including raising a herd of shaggy-haired and grass-fed Highland cattle. But the cranberries are special.

Although Massachusetts is better known than Maine for growing cranberries, the fruit is native to the swamps and bogs of North America and is an important part of Maine’s agricultural history. During the 19th century, many Maine farms produced small cranberry crops, but the state’s commercial cranberry industry was virtually eliminated in the early 1900s, according to the 1996 Cranberry Agriculture in Maine: Grower’s Guide. Those reasons included lack of technology for frost protection, the spread of disease and pests, depressed demand during World War I and the replacement of fresh cranberries in the market with the new canned cranberry sauce.

It took a long time for cranberries to make their way back to Maine farms. It wasn’t until 1991 that the state had its first modern commercial harvest. And even now, 25 years later, it still is considered a speciality crop in Maine with just 110 acres in production this year, according to Charlie Armstrong, a cranberry specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Most of the state’s cranberries are grown in Washington County.

In comparison, Maine leads the nation in wild blueberry production, growing more than 100 million pounds of blueberries in both 2014 and 2015. Steep price declines recently have meant that the crop value has decreased to just over $47 million in 2015, but that figure still dwarfs the cranberry sales. Maine potatoes, grown largely in Aroostook County, also are critical to the state’s agricultural economy, with total sales estimated to be in excess of $540 million.

Still, cranberries are expected to play more of a role here in the coming decades.

“In Maine, our climate is perfect for cranberries, and that’s been interesting, too,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been following projections on climate change. If the projections were to come true, by 2070 it won’t even be feasible to try to grow cranberries in Massachusetts and New Jersey. They expect the cranberry industry to move north.”

Armstrong said that despite the drought, he has heard that it has been a great season for the state’s cranberry growers. One Washington County grower, Mingo’s Products of Calais, reported that the company had a bumper cranberry crop on its 17 acres of bogs.

“They feel it might be their largest crop ever,” he said.

At the moment, there are about 20 cranberry growers in Maine, and the value of last year’s crop was about $1.5 million. That number is expected to drop this year, because large grower Cherryfield Foods in Cherryfield made the business decision last fall to stop farming cranberries on its 110 acres of bogs. The company had wet harvested the crop, flooding the bogs and gathering the ripe berries that floated to the surface.

But there is a national surplus of water-harvested cranberries, Armstrong said, and that’s depressed the market. Last year, prices dropped as low as 12 cents per pound and Cherryfield Foods decided it wasn’t worth it to cultivate the berries. That cut the amount of land in cranberry cultivation in Maine in half.

“It’s almost like two different crops you’re talking about,” the cranberry specialist said. “The glut in the market is for water-harvested berries that go for processing. But if you’re small enough, and have enough labor to dry-pick the cranberries, they last for so long, and that’s the reason why you get a higher price for them.”

Years ago, Luce had flooded his two bogs and wet harvested the berries that he sold to big processors. But it wasn’t financially worth it.

“You can’t grow them for nothing,” the farmer said.

But dry harvesting the cranberries has made it more financially feasible to cultivate the cranberry bogs. Highland Farms of Troy charges prices as high as $4 per pound for first-quality fruit or $3 per pound for ten pounds of utility cranberries. Armstrong said that customers are willing to pay more for fresh cranberries grown in Maine.

“People seem happy and willing to pay for that, I think for good reason,” he said. “We have an amazing color to our cranberries up here. They say the cold nights really help provide the deep red color, and they say that’s what triggers the plant to produce the pigment. That’s often why our color is better than the Massachusetts berries.”

That certainly seemed true at Highland Farms, where the harvested, sorted berries look a little like deep-red rubies that happened to be piled in plastic bags or heaped in wooden crates. And despite the ongoing drought, it has been a bumper year for the cranberries, according to Wixson and Luce.

“We have two or three times the amount of berries we usually have,” Wixson said, adding that after the harvest is done that might add up to 8,000 pounds of cranberries.

Luce thinks the increase might actually be because of the drought.

“I think the dryness must have impacted the bugs,” he said. “Last year we were nearly wiped out by the [blackheaded] fireworm. This year, there were none at all.”

Another theory is that the dry weather may have helped during the critical pollination time, according to Armstrong, who compared this year with the rainy summer of 2014.

“We had almost nothing but rain during the bloom period that year,” he said, adding that Bangor got nearly seven inches of rain during the month of July. “That’s when cranberry growers are in peak bloom, and the crops were about half of what they should have been that year. People think rain and water must be good for cranberries, and it is, except during that bloom period.”

Maine cranberry farmers did have to irrigate their crops this year. Cranberries are nearly 90 percent water and require about an inch of water per week to thrive. This year there was much less rain than necessary.

“Had the farmers used up their irrigation, it would have been a different story,” Armstrong said.

Fortunately, the irrigation system at Highland Farms kept up with the cranberries’ thirst for water. And this month, Wixson and Luce worked hard to try and keep up with the harvest.

“The dry harvest is very labor intensive,” he said while pushing a mechanical berry picker ahead of him in the bog.

After the berries are picked, they are first run through a vintage cranberry separator, then sorted by hand. The 104-year-old machinery is perfect for small operations like Highland Farms, Wixson said, but was hard to find. Before they did, they sorted the thousands of pounds of cranberries completely by hand.

“We bought this one last year in Massachusetts after searching for one for several years,” she said. “They aren’t made anymore — the larger operations have moved to new and expensive cranberry separating processes, which we just can’t afford.”

Wixson said she still spends quite a lot of time sorting cranberries.

“It’s so peaceful — I love the quiet of the barn,” she said as her fingers deftly flew through the berries, flicking out the ones that didn’t quite make the grade. “What you want is just nice berries.”

Luce laughed as he remembered why he planted the cranberries in the first place.

“Originally, I was looking for a retirement job. I said this will be easy,” he recalled. “Once you plant them, they live for 100 years. That’s the thing. You can’t really walk away.”

And they don’t want to, Wixson said.

“We’re going to keep farming until we drop dead, I think,” she said. “We just love it.”

Fresh cranberries picked at Highland Farms of Troy can be purchased at the farm shop at 901 Bangor Road in Troy. Shop hours for November can be found by calling 441-9453 or by checking out the farm’s Facebook page.

 



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