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Jeff Kapell, South Shore cranberry farmer

Jeff Kapell, South Shore cranberry farmer

Where do Your Thanksgiving Cranberries Come From? Lake George Visitor Tells All

By Paul Post

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Jeff Kapell makes a living at one of the oldest forms of agriculture in North America, in the place Pilgrims first landed almost 400 years ago.

Kapell Cranberries in Plymouth, Mass., is one of the Bay State’s many farms that raise this tart tiny fruit, which adorns Thanksgiving tables throughout the U.S. each year in a variety of forms including sauces, juice or served fresh to accent tasty salad dishes.

It’s a demanding, labor-intensive industry fraught with many challenges such as this year’s drought that has affected all types of Northeast agriculture.

“Berries are smaller than normal this year because of the drought,” Kapell said. “It’s a good crop, but probably about 15 percent less than it should be.”

Before the busy harvest season, he and his wife, Alex, vacationed in Lake George this summer and were so impressed that they came back for a second visit during the Adirondack Balloon Festival.

“We have already booked a week stay for next summer,” Kapell said. “Upstate New York has always been a favorite area for me and the Lake George region provides a beautiful setting with plenty of potential activities to choose from when the motivation to pursue something strikes.”

“Vacations for us there are RV camping-based, so obviously relaxing in nature is the first priority,” he said. “But we bring road bikes and did the Warren County Bikeway from Lake George to Glen Falls. Next year we intend to take in a race at Saratoga Springs and a boat ride on Lake George in addition to the camping, biking, sampling local fare and relaxing. The combination of proximity, beautiful country side, family and availability of a variety of activities is extremely appealing.”

Kapell has been raising cranberries for more than 40 years.

Recently, he served as a guide for the thousands of visitors who braved Hurricane Matthew to attend the 13th annual Cranberry Harvest Festival in Wareham, Mass. The storm put a damper on the event, but provided welcome relief to growers, as precipitation in their region was 10-12 inches below normal this year.

“Festival organizers aren’t too happy, but ask any grower and they’ll say, ‘Thank God!’” Kapell said.

As with all types of farming, raising cranberries is weather-dependent and water is essential. With cranberries, water not only nourishes plants, but is also critical to harvesting.

Well into the 20th century, cranberries were largely dry-harvested by hand.

Beginning in the 1960s, growers developed a system of wet harvesting with machines. First, man-made bogs are flooded with a shallow amount of water. Next, a picking machine goes through the bog, knocking berries off plants.

The bogs are then flooded with more water. As berries float to the top, they are corralled using a large boom.

Powerful pumps draw berries up through hoses to a sorting machine, which separate the berries from plant debris. A steady stream of water cleans berries during this process.

From there, the fruit is trucked to a nearby processing plant — Ocean Spray in the case of Kapell’s Cranberries — where it’s used to make juice, sauce and other value-added products.

A small percentage of berries sold for fresh fruit are still dry-harvested, with machines.

Ocean Spray has processing plants in Pennsylvania, Texas, Nevada and Wisconsin, the latter of which has far surpassed Massachusetts as the nation’s leading cranberry producer.

“There are about 800 cranberry growers in the world,” Kapell said. “There are 400 right here in Massachusetts. Wisconsin is fewer in numbers, but they have much larger and newer operations.”

However, the Bay State is celebrating the commercial industry’s 200th anniversary this year. In 1816, retired sea captain Henry Hall first cultivated cranberries in Dennis. Before this, they simply grew wild.

One year, strong winds covered plants with sand and Hall thought they were ruined. Instead, the plants did better than ever.

Picking up on this, Hall realized that sand helps the plants thrive by covering their woody stems, thereby supporting a healthy root system, allowing fruit to grow from each year’s new green shoots above ground.

Today, growers apply sand regularly. Every few years, in winter, plants in large man-made bogs are covered with water. When ice is 4 to 6 inches thick, water below is drawn off for safety reasons, in case someone falls through, and workers haul and distribute sand on the frozen surface.

In spring, as the ice melts, plants benefit from a fresh layer of sand.

Bogs are built at slightly different elevations — water flows from one bog to another as needed through a series of sluices — so water is re-used efficiently.

“Because water is so critical to what we do, we work very hard at creating and maintaining water resources — reservoirs and ponds — and an ability to reuse water we are storing so we can be as efficient as possible with that resource,” Kapell said.

Growers also depend heavily on water to protect plants from harmful autumn frosts, which can devastate the following year’s crop.

“We do that with sprinklers,” he said. “In the old days they had to flood the bogs, which took a lot of time and water. The advent of the sprinkler system has really been one of the major steps forward in the ability to protect cranberry crops.

“In summer, we use this same system to irrigate with,” he said.

So while Matthew devastated Haiti, the Bahamas and coastal regions of the Southeast, its rains were quite welcome to Massachusetts cranberry growers.

“It gave us a small amount of relief from what has been a long period of drought,” he said. “We welcomed the rains and they provided relief, but they didn’t end the situation we’re in. We would love to have five more nor’easters with an inch-and-a-half of rain spread out over time.”

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