CARVER — To step onto a cranberry bog, one must first walk the plank. At Fresh Meadows Farm here, two wooden boards are the only bridge across the narrow irrigation ditch that surrounds the crimson turf of the bog. A hawk rises up from the ditch, its white chest mirroring the brilliant sun on this crisp and cloudless day. The ground is springy underfoot, like a giant loofah sponge. Grower Domingo Fernandes squats and parts the emerald vines to reveal a trove of ruby-colored fruit.
Fresh Meadows is one of many bogs within an hour’s drive of Boston that offer an up-close glimpse into the growing process for the berry whose juice is prized here. The harvest typically stretches from late September to early November and is highly variable depending on the weather. It’s easy to arrange a trip to a bog and a bounty of fresh-picked cranberries, and farmers are frequently eager to share the fruits of their labors.
But don’t expect a sea of bobbing berries, at least not everywhere. “We used to have very nice tours walking kids around the bog, showing them what insects there are and what kinds of things live in the ditches. But now all people want to see is floating cranberries,” says Kristine Keese of Cranberry Hill Organic Farm in Plymouth, which she owns with husband Robert. She blames television commercials for making visitors think that all cranberries are picked in water. Most are, but like many of the local bogs open to visitors and that sell fresh fruit (wet-picked berries are typically processed for wider distribution) Cranberry Hill is part of the small percentage that picks their berries without flooding them first.
Dry picking was once performed with a wooden scoop that resembles an oversized bear claw. Now most of the harvest is done with machines that look like armored lawn mowers. Mechanical teeth lift the berries from the vine as they are sent to a sack rigged to the back — and how satisfying it must be to find 30 pounds of red fruit in there instead of lawn clippings. To get the haul to trucks parked just across the irrigation ditch, many growers call in the cavalry. Helicopters are a common sight on bogs during the harvest season, as it can be more cost-effective to airlift a crop that short distance, plus it saves wear and tear on the vines. The scene is part pastoral, part science fiction: Pickers slowly tread the bog behind their machines like futuristic grazing animals while air support swoops about, dangling 900-pound containers of produce.
For a thorough immersion, visit Flax Pond Farms in Carver. These tours are led by one of the members of the family that has owned this farm since 1967. It ends with a taste of hot, spiced cranberry tea.
A 100-year-old wooden structure houses functioning antique processing equipment that your hosts are happy to demonstrate, and for sale you’ll find cranberry . . . well, everything. There is soap, marmalade, dried cranberries, vinaigrette, syrup, recipe books, cranberry and horseradish jam, and honey made from bees that feed on pink cranberry blossoms in the spring. Owners Dorothy and Jack Angley were once featured on the back of a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail. Their grandson would make sure that all of the bottles at the local supermarket were arranged so grandma and grandpa’s faces were greeting customers.
Linda Everett leads many of the tours here and grew up picking berries on her knees while wielding the old-fashioned scoop. Some farmers still rely on that piece of equipment for the edges and uneven sections of bog where the picker machines are less effective. “If you start hearing popping noise under your feet, you know there’s berries when you’ve been walking and you missed some,” says Everett. As if on cue, a stray from the demonstration equipment sounds a report from under this writer’s shoe.
At Fresh Meadows Farm, Domingo Fernandes tosses a berry into his mouth while standing on the bog his grandfather started building in 1945. The variety is an heirloom called Early Black, whose deep hue can rival that of an olive. “Most people can’t eat them raw because they’re so tart,” says the farmer. “I eat them by the handful.”