March 4, 2010

Farmers turning cranberries into comeback crop


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Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer About 14 acres of cranberries are under production at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. A worldwide interest in the healthy properties of cranberries is also expected to boost demand.

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Staff Writer

TURNER — The rush was on in the deep-maroon cranberry bogs at Ricker Hill Orchards last week.

A dozen men pushed harvesting machines atop the spongy mat of vines, scooping up the tart red fruit before rain shut down the operation, putting off the already late harvest for yet another day.

''Usually the harvest is early October,'' shrugged Harry Ricker, manager of cranberry operations at the eighth-generation farm.

Ricker is one of 40 cranberry growers across the state who have resurrected an industry that had vanished from Maine until the 1990s. Cranberries grow wild across the state and were cultivated up until the 1900s. The industry died out after that due to lack of frost protection technology, a drop in demand during World War I, Maine's distance from markets, disease and pests and other factors, said Charles Armstrong, cranberry specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Cranberries are genetically very similar to the wild blueberry and like the same acidic soil and cool temperatures.

That makes Maine an ideal place to grow cranberries, said Armstrong. The industry was revived in part by former Gov. Angus King, who envisioned the cranberry as an economic boost for Washington County. King convened a cranberry summit in 1996 and endorsed a plan calling for the planting of 1,000 acres of cranberry vines in Maine by 2000.

While those efforts have fallen short -- in part because of high startup costs of cranberry farming -- Maine's acreage has steadily increased from 40 acres in 1997 to nearly 299 acres today, according to the 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census. Maine's harvest pales next to Wisconsin, the nation's top cranberry producer with 17,700 acres followed by Massachusetts at 13,000 acres.

Armstrong said he expects the industry to continue to expand in Maine, due to the growing demand for locally grown products and a worldwide interest in the possible health benefits of cranberries.

Last week more than 30 nutrition scientists presented the latest findings from research into the berry's anti-aging, anti-cancer and anti-bacterial qualities at the Fourth Cranberry Institute Health Research Conference in Savannah, Ga.

Work was cited by University of Maine assistant professor and microbiologist Vivian Chi-Hua Wu and her colleagues, who are studying ways cranberries can help protect against the E. coli strain responsible for life-threatening cases of food-borne illnesses.

Wu's studies show that cranberry concentrate slows the growth of or virtually eliminates listeria, salmonella, staph infection and E. coli in ground beef.

All the interest in a fruit that in its raw, unadulterated state is tart enough to make your eyes water bemuses Ricker, who admits it takes an acquired taste to appreciate.

''It's like biting into a lemon,'' he said.

Ricker started growing cranberries in 1997, in an effort to diversify his farm amid global changes to the apple market.

At one time, Ricker Hill produced 850 acres of apples, compared to 325 acres today. The crop was sold almost exclusively overseas. Today, 95 percent of the apples are sold in Maine.

''We couldn't compete so we went into blueberries, cranberries and organics,'' said Ricker.

He now has about 14 acres of cranberries under production. Frosts and rain delayed the harvest this year. The berries have to be dry for the initial harvest, but most nights in October the sprinklers had to be kept on to prevent frost damage. A soggy pollination period will decrease the crop to about two-thirds of the 200,000 pounds produced last year.

The cranberries are grown in man-made bogs separated by dams. The vines grow on moist ground, not in standing water. When the berries are ripe, the vines are first dry-harvested by hand-pushed machines which look like snow blowers. The harvested berries are placed in big driers and another machine that removes debris. Then they are hand sorted.

''Good cranberries bounce,'' said Ricker.

The green ones are sold to a Vermont vintner. The bruised ones are sold for use in pharmaceutical products. The fresh fruit is then sealed in plastic bags by an automated packager before it is shipped off to grocery stores across Maine and eastern New Hampshire.

Then the wet harvest begins. The bogs are flooded with several feet of water before a harvesting machine gently beats the remaining cranberries from the vines.

The berries are rounded up with booms, sucked out of the water and boxed up before they are trucked to Chatham Biotec, a New Brunswick pharmaceutical and nutraceutical manufacturer.

Ricker said one of his three sons has an interest in farming and wants to increase the cranberry acreage, but first they will have to find the right site: at least 30 acres on a river with clay subsoils.

Armstrong, the University of Maine cranberry specialist, said acreage is expanding in the state, in part because land is relatively inexpensive compared to other large producing states such as Massachusetts. He said cranberries are a good way for farmers to diversify.

Once established, cranberry vines do not require a lot of intensive care, and the harvest time is relatively short. Ricker said if weather cooperated, it would take just five days to harvest.

But there are challenges in Maine, Armstrong said. It takes three to five years for plants to start bearing fruit, which can make it tough to find a bank willing to wait for loan repayments.

However, Armstrong said there is plenty of room for more cranberry growers in Maine, both in terms of available land and growing demand.

''There is potential there, especially for very small farms,'' he said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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Additional Photos

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, October 28, 2009...Cranberry harvest at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. Farm worker Vali Balan lifts a container of cranberries onto a pallet of berries.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer Workers steer harvesters through a cranberry bog Wednesday at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. Harry Ricker started growing cranberries in 1997, in an effort to diversify his farm amid global changes to the apple market. “We couldn’t compete,” he said.

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Harry Ricker talks about cranberry processing. “Good cranberries bounce,” he said. The best fruit is shipped to grocery stores in Maine and eastern New Hampshire.

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