WAREHAM — Midway through what could be a near-record year for cranberries, some local growers are welcoming throngs of visitors to their bogs, catering to a growing interest in agricultural tourism.
Although some farms have allowed visitors for more than a decade, the variety and depth of opportunities is increasing.
Wareham-based A.D. Makepeace Co. has cosponsored a cranberry festival since 2004, but just last year the company, which bills itself as the world’s largest cranberry grower, began promoting a separate schedule of tours and marketing to tour operators. The program brings families and groups, including bus tours, to watch the annual harvest. It also brings traffic to the company’s retail market, where tourists can get lunch alongside agricultural products, including, of course, cranberries.
Linda Burke, a spokeswoman for the company, said “Keep Out” signs once peppered the bogs, but at least in some cases, that has changed. This year, Makepeace will do about 60 tours with some 1,700 participants. It also offers special events, such as a 5K trail run Nov. 3.
“If people understand the agricultural aspect of what we do, they have a greater appreciation for it,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Makepeace hosted its annual Cranberry Harvest Celebration in conjunction with the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, offering visitors a close-up view of a wet harvest, plus children’s activities, food, and crafts. Although the celebration is over, Makepeace has one more date scheduled for tours before the season ends: Saturday at 10 a.m. The cost of the 90-minute tour, with bus transportation to the bogs, is $12; there is no charge for children under 7.
In neighboring Carver, Flax Pond Farms has offered free tours of its harvest for about 12 years, but has seen more visitors than ever this year — perhaps as many as 7,000 , according to Dot Angley, co-owner with her husband, Jack Angley. The farm also has a gift shop that features an antique wooden separator, which visitors can watch separate berries from leaves and stems.
The Angleys harvest their cranberries dry, without flooding the bogs, a practice used for only a small fraction of the crop; estimates vary between 3 and 10 percent. Fresh cranberries sold in bags to consumers must be harvested dry; the wet-harvested berries go for juice, sauce, sweetened dried cranberries, and other products.
Dry harvesting involves using a walk-behind machine to comb the berries from the plants and lift them into burlap bags or wooden boxes.
Jeff LaFleur purchased Mayflower Cranberries in Plympton in 2009, and he soon began offering not only harvest tours, but also a “be the grower” experience, which allows the agri-tourist to step into a pair of waders and help harvest the berries from some of Mayflower’s 23 acres of bogs. People come from around the country and abroad to give it a try.
“Be the grower” is booked for this year, as are his standard tours, but LaFleur plans to publish next fall’s schedule in the spring.
Growers say predicting how much the bogs will yield is a little like forecasting the weather.
“You walk your bog, and you think you’ve got a good crop, but until they’re weighed, you don’t really know what you have,” said Dawn Gates-Allen, a fourth-generation grower and spokeswoman for the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, which represents about 330 growers around the state.
Massachusetts growers, concentrated in the southeast, are expected to rake in 2.1 million barrels this year of the state’s number one food crop, according to the US Department of Agriculture, but Gates-Allen said any given crop could be off 10 to 15 percent. Damp weather of late has hurt the quality of the some of the fruit, she said, by making berries rot.
Of the five states that produce most of the nation’s cranberries, only Massachusetts is expected to experience a drop in yield from last year — 9 percent, according to the USDA. But local growers said last year’s crop was so abundant that a small reduction still represents good results. If the bogs yield as much as predicted, the crop will still be tied for the state’s third-largest on record.
Aside from the weather, some growers said the cranberry’s natural life cycle affects the crop. Some varieties produce more heavily every second year, while newer varieties produce more consistently, they said.
Jack Angley said his crop tends to be stronger every two years, and last year was the strong one. His crop will be “modest” this year, he said, and he’s not getting too excited about the statewide prediction.
“Farming has a way of biting you in the butt,” he said. He’s been in the business 46 years.
At Makepeace, the crop will probably track the statewide prediction, according to Burke. The company, a grower-owner in the Ocean Spray cooperative, has been able to make its crop more stable by adding new varieties on its nearly 2,000 acres of bogs, she said. Last year was a record year for Makepeace, at 382,000 barrels, topping a previous record of about 300,000, she said. A barrel weighs 100 pounds.
October represents the height of the harvest season. Whenever the nights get too cold, unpicked berries are protected using a thin coating of ice from sprinklers on the bogs. In the spring, growers use the same technique to protect buds.
Variations in temperature made the spring of 2012 challenging, said LaFleur. With the warm winter and early spring, the plants came out of dormancy three weeks early, he said. Then, when spring temperatures returned to normal, the cranberry buds were in danger of frost damage.
From March through June, the area saw 25 “frost nights,” he said, compared with just six in all of 2011. Frost protection is critical in the spring months, because damaged buds may not bear fruit.
The rest of the season went well until the recent dampness, said LaFleur, who is executive director of the growers’ association. The early spring translated into a longer-than-normal growing season. Massachusetts had just enough rain, and on his bogs, pollination went well. LaFleur and other growers rent bees to supplement native pollinators.
In Middleborough, Brenda Cobb of Brenda Cobb Cranberries said her crop may be down by a third this year but will still be “decent.” Cobb farms a 5-acre bog and sells the berries to Carver-based Decas Cranberry Products.
Ocean Spray, which includes farms in Canada, predicts a 5 percent larger crop, for a total of 5.9 million barrels, according to an e-mailed statement attributed to Mike Stamatakos, vice president of agricultural supply and development. Slightly lower yields per acre globally were offset by an increase in acreage, he said.
Governor Deval Patrick’s environmental office hailed this year’s harvest in an Oct. 3 press release, calling the cranberry “a true super fruit” for its vitamins, antioxidants, and other health benefits.
Nationally, the USDA predicts growers will harvest nearly 7.7 million barrels this year, down less than 1 percent from 2011. Production is expected to rise in New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. Although Massachusetts historically produced the most, Wisconsin now grows double what Massachusetts does. Wisconsin’s predicted volume is 4.5 million barrels this year.
Burke, of Makepeace, said that on the whole Wisconsin’s bogs are more efficient than those in Massachusetts, where some were laid out more than 100 years ago, often with irregular perimeters. But new varieties and bog renovations are helping, she said. “It’s certainly a challenge that we all face.”
Massachusetts is ranked second among cranberry-producing states, growing more than one-quarter of the nation’s cranberries and roughly four times that of third-ranked New Jersey. Last year, the Massachusetts crop was worth $102 million, making it the highest-value food crop in the state.