Photo Credit : Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism
Sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism
It’s not often that a farmer’s hard work brings tour buses filled with camera-toting visitors, or families with children, or those who yearn for autumn beauty. But when cranberry farmers in southeastern Massachusetts bring in their ruby-hued crops in September and October and into November, they know they’ll have company.
More than 13,000 acres in Massachusetts are devoted to cranberry growing — primarily in Plymouth, Bristol, and Barnstable counties — and these fields composed of sand and peat may not look like much on their own. But when the berries ripen on the vines, a sea of crimson spreads across the landscape, creating an unforgettable autumn spectacle.
And it’s not just their appearance that dazzles: About a third of all North American cranberry acreage is found in Massachusetts, which ranks as the second leading producer in the U.S. These tart little red gems are not only the official state berry of Massachusetts (which likewise claims cranberry juice as its official state beverage), but also the state’s largest agricultural export, representing a crop value of about $65 million annually and supporting about 7,000 jobs.
So, as cranberry season returns again to the Bay State — and with October marking the arrival of “Massachusetts Cranberry Month” — we offer a salute to this beautiful and essential fall fruit.
Massachusetts Cranberries: History
Officially known as Vaccinium macrocarpon, the cranberry is one of only three fruits — along with Concord grapes and blueberries — that are native to North America. It was called “sassamanash” or “ibimi” by the indigenous peoples of Massachusetts, who used it for medicine, dyes, and food (for instance, combining crushed cranberries with dried venison and fat to make pemmican).
The Pilgrims and those who followed also made use of these wild berries, which the newcomers called “crane berries” for how the white flowers resembled the heads of cranes. But growing cranberries as a commercial crop didn’t begin until 1816, when Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall began cultivating them in Dennis, on Cape Cod.
Southeastern Massachusetts quickly became the center of the 19th-century cranberry industry, and in 1888 the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association was established to standardize the standardize the 100-pound barrel, the measure by which cranberries are sold. Today it is one of the country’s oldest farmers’ organizations, representing 330 growers throughout Massachusetts.
Another Bay State milestone was the 1910 founding of a permanent facility for cranberry research, in Wareham, by what is now the University of Massachusetts Amherst. More than a century later, the research being done at the UMass Cranberry Station is among the highest-regarded in the nation.
And in 1912, a lawyer turned cranberry farmer named Marcus L. Urann in Hanson, Massachusetts, began canning and juicing cranberries commercially for the first time. He not only revolutionized the industry by creating a true year-round product, but also launched the cranberry cooperative that would become world-famous as Ocean Spray. Among the founding members of that cooperative was another name that is widely known today: the A.D. Makepeace Company. Founded in Barnstable in 1854 and now based in Wareham, the company farms nearly 2,000 acres of bogs in southeastern Massachusetts and is considered to be the largest grower of cranberries in the world.
Hungry for more Massachusetts cranberry history? The Harwich Historical Society and Brooks Academy Museum features Cape Cod’s largest exhibit dedicated to the history of cranberry culture in this region, with photos, artifacts, and hands-on activities — even a diorama of a cranberry bog. (Note: The museum building closed Sep. 17, 2022, for a construction project; please visit the website for updates.)
Massachusetts Cranberries: Harvest Time
The cranberry bogs of southeastern Massachusetts put on such a brilliant display every fall, you could argue that the best seasonal color there can be found by looking down, not up. Growing on long, running vines in freshwater bogs, native cranberries are at their most beautiful when the bogs are flooded and the berries are loosened from their vines, causing them to float up and form a watery crimson carpet that can be easily corralled by farmers. (This is the traditional harvesting method for most growers; however, about 10 percent of the Massachusetts crop is dry harvested with a mechanical picker.)
Wherever the eye looks — heading west from Plymouth, say, down Seven Hills Road and out Federal Furnace Road, or along Routes 106 and 44, or south on 58, through Carver, Wareham, and Middleborough, through Kingston, Plympton, and Halifax — cranberry bogs at harvest time are pull-the-car-over spectacles. A number of farmers welcome visitors, and many will pause in their work, as generations before them have, to talk bogs and berries.
For instance, you can learn about the 12-month operation of a cranberry bog, see the equipment, and visit with farm animals by booking a guided tour of Leo and Andrea Cakounes’s operation in Harwich, the largest organic cranberry bog on Cape Cod. You can also register for a bog bus tour through the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, or check its list of growers that are open to the public for agricultural tourism and cranberry sales.
Train fans can also experience the beauty of cranberry harvest season by hopping aboard the Cape Cod Central Railroad this fall. From now through Oct. 22, the heritage railway offers a scenic round-trip Cape Cod Excursion Train that departs from either Hyannis or West Barnstable, and features lively onboard narration during a journey that showcases cranberry bogs along with other aspects of the Cape’s natural beauty, such as woodlands, sand dunes, and salt marshes.
And of course, there are festivals and other community celebrations to enjoy each fall. After the Harwich Cranberry Arts & Music Festival has kicked things off in mid-September, the lineup includes:
The Nantucket Harvest Fair (Oct. 1–2), a weekend of fun and outdoor events at the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Milestone Cranberry Bog, whose 195 cultivated acres represent the heart of cranberry farming on the island
Ocean Spray’s annual Fall Harvest Celebration (Oct. 15), a day of free family activities at Foxborough’s Patriot Place including walks on the Nature Trail, home to the last remaining active cranberry bog in Foxborough
CranFest (Nov. 11-12), offering family activities, lectures, live music, tastings, a cranberry recipe competition, and more at Plymouth’s famed living history museum, Plimoth Patuxet
Massachusetts Cranberries: Taste for Yourself!
Naturally low in sugar, cranberries have been found to have a multitude of health benefits. The berries’ bacteria-blocking compounds are widely believed to help prevent a variety of ailments, including urinary tract infections, ulcers, and gum disease. High in vitamins, antioxidants, and flavonoids, the berries may also play a role in preventing cancer.
Cranberries are incredibly hardy, too, lasting one to two months fresh in the refrigerator and up to a year when frozen. The color alone makes them an ingredient worth embracing, but their tart flavor combined with the sweetness of, say, a pie or cobbler is the reason many cooks turn to them repeatedly through the fall.
To get started cooking with cranberries, try this recommended recipe from Yankee food editor Amy Traverso that’s perfect for a cozy autumn dessert: Cranberry Cobbler with Cream Biscuits. Or check out the video series “Cooking with Massachusetts Cranberries,” featuring everything from Cranberry Mojitos to Pork Chops with Cranberry Maple Pan Sauce.