Cranberries

Winter 2002-2003

By Rhonda Houston (Tate)

It’s a Saturday morning in late September. The remnants of a tropical storm have blown through, leaving crisp, new air, blue skies and a sun that can still warm, even in its post summer state. Entering a farmhouse through the back door, which is, after all, the only true way to enter a farmhouse, a wearied traveler is welcomed by the crooning of James Taylor. Apples, picked from the ancient tree outside, are being prepped for pie, and a bottomless cup of coffee steams on the counter. All of this, brought to you by Pat and Mike, or Mike and Pat, depending on who’s talking.

The world of Mike and Pat Macfarlane began at their meeting in 1978. Mike was an on-again, off-again college student at the University of Rhode Island dabbling in engineering, biology, a bit of psychology – standard fare for many aspiring farmers. Pat, a native of Connecticut, followed the same path as many of her peers – a couple of junior colleges and a lot of travel. They met through a mutual friend, and never parted.

The story could easily have been two children of the 60s meet, fall in love, move to Maine to homestead and become one of MOFGA’s many organic families. Of course, no story goes quite that way without a few twists. Before seeking the quiet life of Maine, Mike and Pat spent a few years as commercial fishermen off the coast of Rhode Island. After several visits to Maine, the Macfarlanes decided to sell the boat and move up the coast. As Mike fondly remembers the move, “we bought an old school bus at an auction, had two giant yard sales, threw the rest of our worldly goods into the bus and headed to Maine.”

With the fishing life behind them, Mike and Pat settled into their current property on Graham Lake in Ellsworth. The farmhouse, typical of most Maine farmhouses, needed serious repair. They made the house habitable and planted a small garden for themselves the first spring, not intending to farm, but to sustain themselves. Pat noticed that many people in the area had farm stands at the end of their driveways, and decided to put some excess veggies out. “The first year we made seven dollars, the second year we made 35 dollars, and the third year we made $165. We got so excited, we decided to do the farmers’ market in town. Then we put in another garden, we bought the property out back and we kept growing and growing …. It was like a sickness really.”

The property out back happened to be a defunct racetrack, half of which was a cattail pond and half crumbling pavement. It takes quite an imagination to stand over an abandoned racetrack and see agricultural promise, but according to Pat, Mike has a very ‘fertile mind.’ In the late 80s and early 90s, the department of agriculture was encouraging the creation of commercial cranberry bogs, a once booming business but now ghost town occupation in the state because once-large premiums for those who sold to Ocean Spray fell; organic growers never sold to Ocean Spray and are enjoying that choice now. Among the cattails at the Macfarlanes’ property, wild cranberries were thriving already, and adding fruit production to a growing vegetable business seemed like a good fit.

A Brief History of the Cranberry

The American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) grows wild in many swamps and bogs in Maine. Here, blossoms arrive in early June and fruits are ready for harvest in late September or early October. In the early 1800s, the Cape Cod area was one of the first to harvest cranberries commercially, and Maine was not far behind. Soon many farms in Maine were cultivating small bogs of cranberries for home use and for surplus sale. In the early 1900s, the industry was wiped out in Maine due to insects, diseases, climatic conditions and the lack of demand caused by World War I. In the late 1980s, the state still had no commercial producers; however, a push by the Department of Agriculture and industry leaders encouraged many farmers, including the Macfarlanes, to put in cultivated cranberry bogs. As of March 2002, 39 growers were raising cranberries in the state.

The Macfarlanes, never ones to take the easy route, found the hype of cranberries intriguing but also found the pressure to use chemicals disappointing. When fellow growers suggested that cultivating cranberries organically was nearly impossible, Mike and Pat saw a challenge. They have been cultivating cranberries organically ever since.

Building a Bog

What appeared to be an environmental wasteland became an ideal cranberry bog. With heavy clay soil, and an endless supply of water from Graham Lake and from an overflow pond directly adjacent to their property, building a mud flat to start berries on the dry end of the track was not challenging. After securing the necessary permits from the Department of Environmental Protection, Fish and Wildlife, Soil Conservation, the Town of Ellsworth and the Army Corps of Engineers, the Macfarlanes trucked in enough sand to cover half an acre of the track 6 inches deep. A dike was erected to hold water when the bog was flooded, and 500 pounds of cranberry cuttings were planted. The Macfarlanes chose not to adhere to the recommended planting rate of a ton per acre, and found their plantings had an adequate yield after 3 to 4 years. The bog is flooded every winter to protect the plants and encourage growth, and approximately an inch of sand is added every other year, also to encourage growth.

Sitting back on an idea is not the way of the Macfarlanes, or of most farmers for that matter. With the help of a few USDA-SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grants, Mike and Pat were able to experiment with various mulching methods and pest controls to help keep their process organic. To deter fruit worm, a piece of Reemay large enough to cover half of their bog was rolled out every evening and taken in every morning. Though this reduced pest pressure, the time commitment was daunting. A different method of disrupting the life cycle of the fruit worm is to flood the bog after first bud break and keep it flooded for up to two weeks. This method worked well but diminished yields. Thus, the Macfarlanes decided that controlling fruit worms was not economically viable. Organic farming is a balancing act, and many farmers who are cultivating berries in this state have found that the low maintenance approach is often just as profitable.

In the early- and mid-90s, cranberry growers were experiencing a large premium for their berries. In 1997 a barrel of cranberries was fetching nearly $85. Today, this premium has disappeared, and many growers have gone with it. The Macfarlanes, and the one other organic grower in Maine, have been able to stay in the business because of their organic practices. Last year the average grower was receiving 15 cents a pound. Mike and Pat were receiving $3 a pound in their fresh, wholesale markets and $2 a pound frozen. With only half an acre of cranberries yielding about 1000 pounds of fruit, they aren’t quite ready for retirement, but their commitment to organic is certainly paying off.

A Brief History of Pat and Mike’s Garden

“The great thing about farming is, you get to reinvent yourself every year.” – Pat and Mike Macfarlane.

Though cranberries are a big part of the Macfarlanes’ acreage, the bulk of the day-to-day activities centers around their acre of vegetable production. From the first year, when their surplus vegetables garnered $7, the focus has been on a mix of vegetables. Each year they expanded their production while both holding down off-farm jobs. They went through the typical ‘growing pains,’ according to Mike. They hired help, as many as four extra people at one point, and then reconsidered their decision. The extra paperwork that went along with hiring people as well as the everyday headaches of keeping help productive and profitable resulted in their decision to scale back to a point where they could handle the work themselves. This transition made them focus on the most profitable vegetables. As many farmers in this region have found, salad mixes are a meaty enterprise. Though the work is tedious – at one point they were planting 1000 seeds, transplanting 1000 plants, hoeing 1000 heads and harvesting another 1000 heads all in one week during full rotation – salad mixes are a steady way in the door of many markets. They have scaled back production to about 70 to 80 pounds a week, but aren’t willing to give it up completely. Once restaurants and health food stores committed to buying salad mixes, Pat and Mike found that they were willing to buy whatever was coming out of the rest of their garden in any given week. If they could guarantee a delivery of greens every week, markets were willing to negotiate on everything else.

The mix of their vegetables is changing slowly to reflect the popularity of their cranberries. At their pick-your-own cranberry events, they saw an opportunity to sell pumpkins, a favorite crop, and other late-harvest veggies. As Pat and Mike deliver their cranberries up and down the coast – as far as New Hampshire – they bring along pumpkins, onions and whatever else is still hanging around to take full advantage of their fall markets.

What happens when the cranberries are flooded, the garden is put to bed and the snow is flying? Pat and Mike head to a Third World country to soak up sun, culture and new farming ideas. From the mangoes of Peru to the mountain rice in Thailand, the Macfarlanes are continuously looking for ways to keep their farming fresh. “We’re always changing, and we may not farm forever,” according to Mike. This may be true, but it’s hard to imagine a better use for the crumbling racetrack or for such fertile minds.

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