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Visitors pitch in at annual cranberry harvest

Agritourists from as far as Europe have taken part in the “Be the Grower” program at the 24-acre Mavflower Cranberries in Plympton. Exports have helped the industry rebound.

Mayflower Cranberries

Agritourists from as far as Europe have taken part in the “Be the Grower” program at the 24-acre Mavflower Cranberries in Plympton. Exports have helped the industry rebound.

PLYMPTON — I arrived with the turning leaves to prepare for the impending harvest. The first bogs at Mayflower Cranberries in Plympton were cultivated more than a century ago, and while countless workers have since joined in the annual fall ritual, I came as one of a burgeoning breed of agritourists looking to encounter my food at its source.

In step with a nationwide trend among farmers, a small but expanding group of 10 or so Massachusetts growers invite visitors to learn more about the cranberry crop. Roadside stands mark the byways of greater Cape Cod, and curious travelers can often schedule farm tours for a look at the berry before it reaches the gelatin mold.

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Most tours explain the growing process and allow visitors to observe the harvest. But the more ambitious can grab their waders and get their hands dirty at Mayflower Cranberries, where owner Jeff LaFleur has offered a hands-on “Be the Grower” experience since he purchased the historic plot in 2009.

“I wanted to offer something different, the chance to actually join in the harvest,” said LaFleur, a friendly, 44-year-old farmer with the ruddy complexion of someone who spends his days outdoors. “The experience is as interactive as visitors want it to be, whether they want to rake and load berries or just watch and take in the scenery.”

Because I arrived before the October harvest, my job was somewhat less glamorous, but no less satisfying. I spent my time planting neon flags throughout “Screen House” bog, one of six on LaFleur’s property, in preparation for the double deluge of tourist-workers and water. The 24 acres of bogs are flooded during harvest. The flags will eventually sit about a foot above the waterline to mark drainage ditches and denote sections of cranberry growth, aiding the use of machines, called water reels, which use spinning bars to stir up the water and gently dislodge berries from the vines.

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Come harvest time, those joining the “Be the Grower” experience then work to corral and feed the floating berries into a pump-and-hose system that loads the fruit onto farm trucks.

Even without water, I found the ground surprisingly spongy, with layers of sand and peat nourishing the crimson berries at my feet. I couldn’t help but eat some of the profits. Each berry’s tart crunch paired well with the tranquil scene.

Beyond the bog, the red, white, and blue “Liberty and Union” Colonial flag of Taunton, LaFleur’s boyhood home, fluttered near a humble pump house, clad in the weathered shakes ubiquitous in this region. It became apparent why visitors are drawn to the experience, with the landscape only adding to the growing connection between myself and a harvest that wasn’t even mine.

“As people today become further removed physically from the country’s farms, there is still this pull back to the land,” said LaFleur, who has served for 17 years as executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, which represents 300-plus growers farming some 14,000 acres statewide. “Everyone is trying to eat healthier,” he said. “They want to eat local and are naturally curious about their food source.”

Winemaking excursions, whether in Tuscany or the Loire Valley, have long been favored agritourism vehicles. But stateside ventures, ranging from pistachio grove tours in New Mexico to cheese-making demonstrations in Vermont, have become increasingly popular. More than 23,000 farms claimed agritourism income in the latest Department of Agriculture census in 2007, with that number likely to rise during this year’s count.

LaFleur expects his 80 or so “Be the Grower” openings to fully book, even though he nearly doubled his available spots from last fall. Every year it seems more families wade into the bogs to take holiday card photos, and participating in a harvest seems to remain high on many people’s “bucket list.”

A Connecticut couple celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary was among last year’s helpers, according to LaFleur. Lisa Chrzanowski of Haddam had passed a cranberry harvest while on vacation for her first anniversary, but her husband, Stan, citing a strict schedule, couldn’t be persuaded to stop. Instead, two decades later, he made the harvest a centerpiece of their milestone anniversary.

“Out there in the bogs, he ended up being in his glory. You can’t get this experience anyplace else,” said Lisa Chrzanowski, 44, who hopes to return with their kids. “There is a need to keep farms growing, so it was exciting to learn about the harvest process and take part in something unlike anything we’ve ever done before.”

There is even a global demand to strap on a pair of waders and live life like an Ocean Spray commercial. Tourists from England, France, Italy, and Germany have all lent a hand at Mayflower Cranberries.

In a way, it makes perfect sense since the market for cranberries in Europe is booming. Approximately 30 percent of the US crop is now sent overseas — the majority of LaFleur’s harvest will be bound for Europe. There is also a high demand for juice and sweet dried cranberries, which have found their way onto bakers’ shelves on the continent.

Increased exports have led a rebound in the cranberry industry, which suffered the economic fallout of oversupply in the late 1990s.

Farmers like LaFleur still face other challenges on a daily basis, among them pests and damaging frosts. But they have gotten a boost from scientific and technological advances. For instance, growers can now monitor soil moisture data in real time and activate irrigation systems with the touch of a smartphone. Innovations such as this have led to a nearly 50 percent increase in nationwide cranberry production in the last decade.

Yet there remains something to be said for old-fashioned muscle power.

“It’s great to see our visitors out in the bogs,” said LaFleur. “Since they are experiencing it for the first time, they bring a fresh excitement to the harvest every year.”

Matthew Bellico can be reached at matthew.bellico@gmail.com.
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