MY MARBLEHEAD FIRST TIME: A hunt for a harvest leads to a cranberry bog

Nearly a year into my Marblehead sojourn, I think harvest is the time of year I miss being back home the most. That time of year when a whole year’s worth of planning and sweat come together in a few glorious weeks, and all that matters is bringing in the harvest.

Crimson carpets of cranberry fields evoke bittersweet memories of harvests past. COURTESY PHOTO / COURT MERRIGAN

Harvest is when you find out if you come up snake eyes or money ahead. Did the yields come in like you thought, will commodity prices tank, will the weather hold and the combine not break down before the job is done? As any farmer will tell you, the answers are likely to be no, yes, no, and of course not, respectively. My grandpa used to say that a farming life is just 40 rolls of the dice, if you’re lucky.

That’s what he said, anyhow, but his wry grin always belied his faith in the farm. Farmers are the world’s greatest optimists. They have to be. It’s the only way you can get up and go back out there year after year.

I learned recently at the Marblehead Farmers’ Market that the last farm in Marblehead folded up decades ago. I was a little surprised to learn that there had ever been any farms in Marblehead at all. I thought this was a fishing town! So it being fall, I sought out a harvest anyway. I just had to go a long way from Marblehead to do it.

Carver, way down on the South Shore, in fact. Where the cranberry harvest is in full swing. True to the picture I had in my head, workers in hip waders stood out in knee-high water, roping in the berries. The way it works is, one worker uses a weighted rubber boom to encircle the berries, which have been previously separated from the vine by a machine and then the bog flooded so they will rise with the water. With the help of the prevailing breeze, two other workers use wide push bars to shove the berries to one end of the bog. The final worker uses a rake to usher the berries to a vacuum tube, which delivers the berries from the bog to a separator above and dumps them into a waiting tractor-trailer. The berries are then hauled to a nearby facility where they are processed into the various forms of goodness you get at the grocery store.

Slow, tedious and labor-intensive work. Reminded me a lot of the farmwork I grew up doing. I know my way around a shovel and a pitchfork the way those workers know a push bar and a rake. The main difference is that most of the work I grew up doing has now been mechanized. Gigantic, precision machines accomplish in minutes what used to take me hours.

There were some commonalities: the trailer used to haul off the cranberries was a modified Cornhusker grain trailer, manufactured in Nebraska and a common sight on farms back home. But surely it was the first (and only?) time I’d see one this far east!

In any case, cranberries do not so easily submit to mechanization. I did ask the cranberry farmer why they didn’t use bigger equipment to get the job done faster. It’s not so good for the berries, was the answer. No. 2 corn, like we grow back home, comes in rock-hard kernels. You can toss them any which way and they’ll stay undamaged. Cranberries are not made of such stern stuff. They need kinder treatment if they are to be enjoyed come Thanksgiving.

And with something like a mere 12,000 acres of cranberry bogs left in the entire state of Massachusetts, this crop bears protecting, indeed. In fact, Massachusetts is no longer the nation’s leading producer of cranberries. That distinction has shifted out west to Wisconsin, where land is cheaper and the need for housing less crushing. Fortunately, the cranberry farmers down in Carver and other locales keep on producing the berries. They’ve been in production since 1816 when they were first cultivated on Cape Cod.

All this made for a fine day and a genuine pleasure to watch the harvest come in. A farm is a farm is a farm, and there is something very sweet, indeed, at seeing a year’s worth of hard work pay off.

So this Thanksgiving when you’re sitting to your feast, or perhaps even this evening, spare a thought for the hardworking farmer who risks ruin every year to bring the crop in. And as always, if you’ve got an idea upon which I can embark for a Marblehead First Time, drop me a line at  

Court Merrigan
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Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column “My Marblehead First Time” appears regularly in the Current.

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