Family Harvest

By Berkeley Rice

WITH A GENTLE PUSH, the Jenkins family orchestrates the September harvest of their 56-acre cranberry farm. For four generations the Jenkinses have farmed the bogs of Cape Cod, cultivating the tart red berry that symbolizes the Pilgrims and the feasts of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Cranberry bogs thrive in southeastern Massachusetts. For Jim Jenkins, his wife, Susan, and son, Fred, and for the many families that have dominated the industry there for more than 200 years, harvest is a time of fulfillment. “It makes you feel good about your life, knowing you’ve done the best you can do with your land,” Jim says. “You never know about next year. But there’s something deeply rewarding about working the same bogs as your ancestors. It’s not just economics—it’s family heritage."

Young Jim had always helped out at harvest. But in 1963, following the death of his grandfather (his father had died at a young age), Jim took over the family’s 13 acres of bogs, got married, and began raising a family. He was 19. Jim struggled in the early years, but family pride spurred him on.

Today Jim owns 56 acres. Now 47, he is a prominent member of the Ocean Spray cooperative and a director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association. He speaks with the laconic style of a true farmer and the distinctive accent of a native of Cape Cod (pronouncing the nearby town of Carver as “Kahvah”). The Jenkinses now produce about $500,000 of cranberries a year. Jim’s bogs, plus his 120 dry acres, could fetch $4.5 million if developed, he’s been told. But he’s not interested in the frequent offers he gets from land-hungry developers in this popular recreation region. “Every time I go into these bogs, I think of my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather,” he says, looking out over the flat, moist fields. “I love my land, and I have no intention of selling any of it.”

Such gestalt is essential to survival. Back at his 150-year-old, shingled house, Jim opens his grandfather’s leatherbound ledger, with its carefully penned listings of each year’s revenues and expenses. For the year 1918 the entry bears the terse summary: “No berries.”

Thriftiness is also needed to prevail. “For the first 20 years that I was running the bogs, we never had any luxuries,” Jim says. “Even now, aside from the Lincoln, we don’t live much differently. Most of the money I earn still goes back into the bogs. I won’t spend a nickel if I can help it.”

And then there’s dedication. Jim hopes to pass the bogs to his son someday, “But I won’t just give them to him,” he insists. “Fred’s got to show me that he’s serious, that he’s ready to manage the bogs instead of just work in them.”

Most of the 500 cranberry farms on Cape Cod are small, family operations. Some are still run by the descendants of Colonial cranberry families: Makepeace, Beaton, Decas, Handy. Last year Massachusetts growers produced 2 million barrels of berries, worth about $86 million—the state's most valuable crop.

But success on a wide scale belies what is more common locally. Many families own only 10 to 15 acres and just scrape by from year to year.

Most of the cranberries are sold to Ocean Spray, a giant processing and marketing cooperative. With 750 grower members, Ocean Spray has come to dominate the industry. Its members, most of them family growers, supply 85 percent of the market. Ocean Spray has done much in recent times to open doors. For two centuries sales had been limited to fresh berries, canned sauce, and jelly. But thanks to aggressive promotion, 90 percent of the industry’s revenues now come from sweetened juice and other processed products. Sales have risen from $200 million a decade ago to nearly $900 million today.

During the hectic two-month fall harvest, everyone in the family works 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Some may hire migrant workers. The plants grow in spongy soil, but when the berries ripen in late September, most farmers flood the bogs. They drive through them with rotary beaters that thrash the vines, and the berries float to the top. The bobbing berries are then corralled by man and machine and are funnelled into a truck destined for a local warehouse.

The families who cultivate cranberries must wage constant battle. Battle with yellow “dodder,” a creeping weed that strangles cranberry vines. Battle against root grubs, girdlers, fruitworms, fireworms, and weevils, not to mention geese and mice. Battle against drought, and frost; in the spring, even a couple hours of frost can kill the tender buds. In the fall, a bad frost can turn the berries to mush. Often farmers are out all night, sprinkling acres of plants with warm water—if there is water to be sprinkled.

The farmers wage an economic battle as well. Though prices are up, so are costs for labor, equipment, and supplies. Property taxes have risen even faster. And as Cape Cod is inexorably developed for tourists, competition for fresh water increases, regulations on wetlands mount, and developers inch ever closer, boxing in the bogs with vacation homes and shopping malls.