ROCHESTER — One way or another, Dawn Gates-Allen needs to get her cranberries off the vine. There’s just one problem: She has no water. And water is the lifeblood of cranberry harvests.
So in this year of the drought, Gates-Allen — a fourth-generation cranberry grower — has resorted to a rare dry harvest, a tedious, back-wrenching, beat-the-clock proposition that requires picking cranberries off the vines. This year, some berries have yet to acquire the coveted crimson.
“We . . . only get paid for red,’’ Gates-
Allen said. “When you harvest fresh fruit, the quality needs to be superior.”
This is the harvest that tries the souls of cranberry farmers — one more example of the far-reaching consequences of this summer’s extreme drought.
Each year when cranberries are ripe, farmers use irrigation ponds or reservoirs to flood the bogs. The berries float to the surface and workers corral them, using rakes to direct them toward a conveyor that pumps hundreds into a truck.
But growers in the cranberry industry, which covers 13,500 acres across the state, say they’re 10 inches below the average annual rainfall.
“It’s as low as anyone has ever seen it. It’s the lowest I’ve seen in my lifetime . . . water sources are exceeding 3 feet lower than normal levels,” said John Mason, manager at Slocum-Gibbs Cranberry Co.
During a drought, he said, growers must manipulate their limited water supplies. But that is not always easily done.
“Our cranberry growers’ capabilities to deal with the drought are variable. Many are in a wait-and-see mode,” said Jason Wentworth, assistant commissioner with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
This year, each season has required more water than usual. In the spring, Mason’s farm irrigated to prevent frost from killing the crop, he said. During a particularly hot summer, the farm ran the sprinklers more frequently than usual. Now, they barely have enough to make it through the fall.
Gates-Allen, 49, owns the 28-acre Freetown Farm in Rochester with her husband, Fred, 54. At her family’s other farm, Gates Cranberry, white lines on rocks show where the water usually reaches. This year, the water reservoir looks prehistoric. Tree roots normally under water jut out of dry mud flats.
“It looks like a true swamp,” Gates-Allen said. “It’s hauntingly eerie.”
This has resulted in extreme measures. For the first time in 45 years, the Gates-Allen family decided to dry-harvest their crop. Less than 5 percent of the industry does this. It’s more work for less fruit.
Dry harvesting uses a machine that resembles a lawn mower. It sifts through the bog and gathers cranberries into burlap bags. Still, the machines miss some cranberries, unlike the wet harvest. Gates-Allen — who has three dry-harvesting machines, at a total cost of $13,000 — expects to lose out on 10 to 15 percent of her crop.
Wet harvesting two acres takes 15 to 20 minutes. Dry-harvesting two acres took two and a half days.
“The image of the water-harvested cranberry is captured perfectly in the crimson harvest,” said Gates-Allen, who is also director of member and financial services for the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association. “The berries are floating, there’s a fall background of swamp maples, a beautiful sky. When you’re dry harvesting, it doesn’t offer the same picturesque experience.”
Her husband arrived at the bog at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. He had slept just four hours in 24 hours, typical during harvest season. Fred Allen is a plumber and a welder in Boston. On Tuesday, he worked in Boston overnight from 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., drove back to Rochester, napped two hours, and then hit the bog. This is his first dry harvest.
The last time she did it, Dawn Gates-Allen was 5 years old. She used to help her grandmother recycle burlap animal feed bags and convert them to harvest bags.
She calls her upbringing on a farm a privilege and a problem. She remembers running through ditches in her Sunday best and hiding under piles of vines. Her family has been land rich and cash poor, typical for multigenerational farmers.
“I dragged Fred into this,” Gates-Allen said, folding burlap bags on the bog for the workers.
Next door at Lazy A Cranberries, Karl Ashley III 68, has decided to call it quits. It’s time to retire, but not because of the drought. It’s because of the price of cranberries. He got $14 a barrel last year. Roughly 2,000 barrels yielded an annual income of roughly $28,000.
That doesn’t cover the taxes or the materials to grow the cranberries.
After three generations, it stops with him.
“It doesn’t pay me enough to do it,” Ashley said. “And if I can’t make a living, why would I send my son or my daughters into it? It’s hard for growers in it forever. It’s hard to let go.”
Things look less dire from Ocean Spray headquarters.
Dan Crocker is a vice president at the Ocean Spray cooperative, which is owned by growers, including more than 250 in Massachusetts. He said he expects the harvest to be down this year, because of drought. But he doesn’t expect it to have a huge impact. But last year, he said, Massachusetts saw a bumper crop.