CARVER (CBS) - With just a month to go before they land on your Thanksgiving table, cranberry harvesting is in full swing at Edgewood Bogs field headquarters in Carver.
Patrick Rhodes and his family have been in the cranberry business for 75 years and to say that he is an expert on 'all things cranberry' is an understatement. Edgewood Bogs sits on 800 acres of land and 250 acres is actual cranberry bog.
There are reservoirs and a system of irrigation pumps that move water on the property as well. Rhodes explains that cranberries are attached to short, low vines, and need to be knocked off the vines at harvest time. A machine called a water wheel harvester is used to do that.
"Once the cranberries are floating on the top of the surface, what we'll do is we'll corral them all into one general area where we can actually pump them out of the bog into a truck that's going to give them a cleaning to get off all that natural kind of leaf and stick and things like that," Rhodes explained to WBZ NewsRadio 1030.
It is quite an operation. In fact, there are two different operations. There is a wet harvest, and a dry harvest. Wet harvest cranberries are used for juices and sauces. Dry harvest cranberries are the whole berries you'll see in the store and there are reasons behind both.
"There's generally a little bit higher degree of cosmetic damage in the wet harvest. It's not to say that they are bad berries at all, but the consumer mind says that, you know, a perfectly nice cranberry is what you want to purchase at the grocery store and the dry harvest is far more delicate, so therefore, you're going to get a better looking cranberry," Rhodes explained.
Unlike other cranberry farms in the area, Edgewood Bogs is an independent grower which means the Rhodes family grows, processes and sells their own fruit.
"For us, it was all about cost savings and being able to control our own destiny rather than being told what our pricing's gonna be and what not from those middle men," Rhodes said.
While New England by and large has been enjoying the warm weather this fall, cranberry growers want colder nights. Harvesting this year is about a week behind schedule. Rhodes says while cranberries are the number one agricultural crop in Massachusetts, the state is no longer cranberry king.
"Wisconsin has actually surpassed Massachusetts as being the number one producing state and there's also a couple regions of Canada that are large growing regions for cranberries at this time," Rhodes said.
Rhodes also points out that some Massachusetts cranberry bogs are more than 100 years old and these other regions had better technology for building new farms. He says with pride, however, that with changes made at Edgewood Bogs and Cranberry Select, the brand name of their cranberry products, they are now a zero waste facility.
Edgewood Bogs grows four varieties of cranberries - Early Black, Ben Leer, Stevens, and Howes. Rhodes explained the storage room operations,
"This is raw product that has just come in from the field. This is all dry harvested fruit. Our wet harvested fruit is a little bit different in the fact that it's run right away once it comes in from the field. Dry harvest we actually want to let sit for a while," he told WBZ.
The cleaning and processing of the berries is gravity fed. The fruit goes through a line that starts near the roof of the facility and descends in several steps that include both cleaners and sorters. A system of cameras and lasers looks at thousands of cranberries at a time, and sorts by size and color. Cranberries that are softer and lighter than what is considered market worthy will be plucked right out of the line.
"The final stage is actually the old fashioned way, having people look at the cranberries, so it goes past a line of about four or five screeners. Those people are looking at each cranberry to do what the machines couldn't do, essentially pick up on any slack or where they missed," Rhodes said.
While there is competition among Massachusetts cranberry growers, there is also a recognition that they are all working together to some degree to grow the market for cranberries, especially this year, according to Rhodes.
"The problem is that last year was a great year, and there is actually so much excess fruit still in freezers from last year that we're going into this year with some analysts saying we are going into this year with more fruit than we can sell in a year, before we even harvest one cranberry," Rhodes explained.
One way cranberry farmers are growing the market is by producing not only fresh and frozen cranberries, but tropical juice blends too.
Rhodes says Cape Cod Select was the first company to build a category out of frozen cranberries.
He sums it up this way.
"Right now it's cranberries all the way," he said. "Cranberries are what we love doing, so we've stuck to that."
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