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Wasn't cranberry-growing a hard way of life 40 years ago?

When I was a kid, even though I knew that you wouldn't get rich doing this, I just liked it. It was like the end of the world here. You heard the pines whispering, the birds. Everyone knew me, and I knew them. The people who worked with my uncle and father were friends. If I skinned my knee, somebody would take care of me. Somebody would give me a cupcake out of their lunch, and they basically let me do what I wanted. I thought there was no better way to live.

Is it true some of the existing vines were planted by your grandfather?

This is a perennial crop. If you look out the window past my shoulder, the vines you see were planted in 1939 by my grandfather, and they're still in good shape, though he wouldn't like the weeds that are out there. But f m doing my best, Grandpa. They will last. If you take care of your bog, that bog will provide a living for you for your lifetime.

You make it sound easy: Weed, water, watch it grow.

Yeah, sure - if it were only that simple. There are 100 things that can destroy your crop, everything from a pest that gets out of control to weeds that grow amazingly fast. Briar can grow up to 10 feet a year and overwhelm your crop. We have a new parasitic weed called dodder that wraps around cranberry vines and strangles them.

What's the most difficult aspect of growing?

Undoubtedly, frost nights -you can lose the. bulk of your crop if you don't get out of bed and get those sprinklers going

That seems counter-intuitive, using water to cope with cold.

If you don't put irrigation on, to protect the succulent young it will turn black and you won't get a flower, and if you don't get a flower, you won't get a fruit, and if you don't get a fruit, you nothing to turn into Ocean Spray. We sell our berries to the Ocean Spray cooperative.

But why wet vines to protect them?

It's a protective coating, the water and ice. Inside, the young growth will not drop below 32 degrees. But frost cracks the cell walls of plant materials and will split them open.

Can you leave the house during frost season?

The only time you are comfortable leaving is if there's a pouring rain. Otherwise, at night you are not going to leave. Even though the forecast might say it's-going to cloud over and be warm, and even though the Growers' Association Frost Service- tells you the same thing, you can't really trust anybody - there's too much at risk.

Is there anything unusual today about a woman grower?

No. In the 70's, it would have been. In the 1950s, when I was growing up, out of all the people I knew that were cranberry growers - and virtually everyone I knew was - there was one woman who ran her own bog. Both my father and uncle said to the girls: "You'd better learn how to do something. Be nurses. Be teachers. This is a very hard way to make a living. You need to learn how to do something else." So we all did. [Brown has a PhD in American literature from Michigan State University.] In the '70s, there would have been three or four women growers; now there are quite a lot of women responsible for their companies.

What's special about your bogs?

Massachusetts bogs are distinct from bogs in Wisconsin, say. There, they have acres and acres of flat land and can lay everything out in a grid and plant as far as the eye can see. Here, because the land is uneven, you build bogs contoured to the land, so our bogs have curved edges, which are not necessarily economical for running a straight picker along them - but they look wonderful. The other thing: There's a strong sense of heritage here. Even though, to some extent, growers are in competition with each other, we're stronger as a unit than we are in competition. We have a lot in common; and the other growers are really very helpful.

What products are your berries used for?

Juice and sauce only.

Why is that?

Because we water harvest, you cannot sell them as fresh fruit.

What is water-harvesting?

There are two ways to pick cranberries. One is to just walk out there with mechanical pickers and put the berries directly into boxes. We flood all our bogs and then we run one large mechanical picker with a big reel on it, which rotates and knocks the berries off their stems They-float to the surface. We corral the berries in big circles. Then, from a truck, we run a vacuum hose in the water and suck the berries out, put them in the truck, and wave goodbye.

Sounds complicated.

You get up as soon as it gets light, and though it's incredibly hard work and long days, it's absolutely more fun than anything you can think of. Say you've got a really good day: It's October, the sun is shining, you're standing out there in clean, clear water. You're surrounded by this sea of bright red berries. You've got waders on, so you're perfectly warm and comfortable. You're talking with a bunch of people while you're dragging these berries in. When you get through, you have this huge 18-wheel truck heaping with this gorgeous harvest of bright red berries. It's just the most attractive thing you've ever seen, I swear. I'm not just saying that because I'm a grower - people who have lived here all their lives will stop and watch us.

Is there a cranberry product you personally don't like?

I can't say that. They'll shoot me.

 

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