Caring for Cranberries
“Cranberries have been fascinating to me, my whole life,” says Chris Makepeace ’66 (pictured right with sister, Joanna Makepeace Bennet).I “Every year, it’s like starting all over, because of the weather.”
He’s a board member and former president at Wareham, MA-based A.D. Makepeace Co., a company with 160 years in the cranberry industry. Some of its oldest cranberry bogs have been in production since 1878, according to Makepeace.
The company says it’s the world’s largest cranberry producer, and one of the largest private landowners in Massachusetts, with around 14,000 acres, including bogs and the surrounding properties. The company is also a founding member of the Ocean Spray growers’ cooperative, the best-known brand name in cranberries.
Makepeace grew up in the cranberry business. He always gravitated to the nitty gritty of managing the water and the soil, and all aspects of the cranberry’s unique growing cycle.
People outside the industry may know cranberry bogs are flooded, when the berries are harvested in the fall, usually right before Thanksgiving. The run-up to Thanksgiving often includes media coverage of the harvest, with floating rafts of red cranberries. In winter, the flooded, picked-clean bogs are allowed to freeze over.
While the fall harvest is the star, cranberry farming takes careful preparation in the spring and summer, Makepeace says. He says he never made it to a Tabor reunion until after he retired, partly because reunions take place in early June — a critical time in terms of preparing the soil and protecting the plants from coming frost and insects.
“It’s very intense agriculture. You don’t go to school for cranberries. I was learning and picking the brains of older growers,” shares Makepeace.
Another Tabor alumnus, John Decas ’53, is the retired, former co-owner of Decas Cranberry Products Inc., in Carver, MA. He agrees, June is one of the busiest times of the year for cranberry farmers.
“In June, the major concern … is pest control. The plants are going into blossom in the middle of June. It’s a very sensitive time,” he says.
“The bogs are underwater all winter; they’re dormant,” Decas says. “We pull (drain) the water in April, and the growing season starts. It’s new growth. In June, what you do there will, or will not, determine how you’re going to do at harvest time.”
Decas grew up around the cranberry business, too. Three Greek immigrant brothers—Nicholas, William, and John’s father, Charles Decas—bought their first 15 acres of cranberry bogs in 1934, having started out selling all sorts of produce from a horse-drawn cart, catering to wealthy families along the Southcoast and Plymouth, MA.
The company’s holdings grew to the present 450 acres of its own bogs across the region, plus relationships with many other growers in the area, to process and distribute their cranberries, too.
Decas says consumers find cranberries unique and interesting for three main reasons:“Number 1 is the uniqueness of the agricultural practices—flooding the bogs, how the harvesting is done, all that. Then, there’s the historical part—cranberries being originally a wild plant, then being introduced by the Native Americans to the Pilgrims, being used for medicinal purposes. The other thing is the health benefits of cranberries,” he says.
Cranberries are traditionally known for being high in vitamin C. In more recent times, cranberries have also gained a reputation for containing omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients in the tiny cranberry seeds, which used to be discarded after squeezing the juice out of the cranberries.
The original dried-cranberry product, popularized in the 1980s by another company, was “more like candy than fruit,” because it was mostly cranberry skins alone, plus a lot of added sugar.
Working with food scientists, Decas’ company came up with a process, which was later developed independently by other competitors, that squeezes less juice out of the fruit before the remaining fruit is dried. Decas described the resulting product as “real” dried cranberries.
The finished dried cranberries still contain added sugar, but the proportion of sugar in the recipe is reduced, so that cranberries are listed as the first ingredient on the product label, which follows a required formula for listing ingredients. That was an important distinction for consumers interested in healthy eating, Decas says.
“They’re not called superfruits for nothing,” is a slogan the Decas company uses in its promotions. “People today look at food almost like medicine,” he says.