Monday, October 19, 2009

My Favorite Part of October

Halloween Schmalloween. I mean, the holiday is fun and all, but cranberry harvest is where the real fun is. I've been going to Grayland nearly every year for harvest for... ummm... wow! Twenty five years. I need to point this out to my friends so we can mark that with some sort of celebration. Most likely a celebration involving drinking cranberry juice, eating frozen pizza and competing to see who has the most cranberry leaves in his or her underwear. Or maybe we'll call this blog post the celebration.

My old college buddy Anne is to blame for me ever knowing that cranberries exist. Yeah, okay-- I knew they existed. But that was about it. I didn't know where they came from, how they were picked, or even how many uses they had until the first time I went home with her on an October break from college and began the learning process. Since there are many more people who don't know any more than I did back in 1984, I thought I'd share some of what I've learned here and in the process show you what I'm going to be doing until Thanksgiving. Here's a shot of Anne, proudly showing off the tote she has just assembled. I'll tell you more about totes later.

Check this out. Cranberries. Growing on vines. Yes, vines. Not trees.
If you ever hear someone referring to a "cranberry tree," or a "cranberry bush," point at them and laugh. And then refer them to this post, because clearly they need a good edge-a-macating.
Cranberries grow on vines, which in Grayland are trained to generally lie all in one direction in a peat bog. They are trained this way so that they can be dry picked efficiently. You may have seen photos or video of wet harvest, where they flood the bogs and agitate the vines to release the berries which are then corraled and then sucked out of the water. This is different. This is dry harvesting, and it's done with a Furford picker.

The dudes who are trained to run the pickers (Anne's two older brothers and a few select mechanically-minded friends) fill burlap sacks with roughly forty pounds of berries and pruned vines and leave them to the harvested side of the picker (traditionally the left), and then continue along the bog.

This is Kevin picking. If you squint, you can tell the difference between vines he's picked to his left and those yet to be picked to his right.

Then people like Anne, me and my children come behind and either pack or drag the sacks over to the cart track. As the pickers continue their rounds and get farther away from the center of the bog, the drag becomes longer. Sacks are dragged diagonally so as not to disturb the lay of the vines.

Here Logan and Maya demonstrate their dragging technique, while Quinn demonstrates the proper technique for packing a sack. Note that sacks are never thrown over one's back.

If you have to walk against the flow of vines, you do what's called a "bog walk." Picture John Cleese doing this silly walk, kicking slightly lower and in rubber boots and waders instead of a suit and bowler and without the briefcase and you'll be close.

Once you have the sacks dragged over close to the track, it's time to put the cart in gear and pick them up.

Maya is demonstrating her favorite thing, which is resting on the cart while others do the heavy lifting. The cart is set to a nice low, slow gear, and the hefting and stacking begins.

There is an art to the stacking, and Eric, who met Anne our freshman year and married her the day after we graduated in 1987, has had plenty of experience. The fact that he's 6'2" helps quite a bit too, because he can lift and stack higher than the rest of us. The fact that Bruce, who's a tall, strapping lad himself, can lift sixty pound sacks over his head over and over without tiring doesn't hurt either.

Here's what Eric would fondly call a "He-Man" shot.See how burly he is? Not bad for a professor of English Literature, eh?

This shot kind of shows where the Furford pickers can't pick-- right on top of and next to the track.
Those berries are harvested later with a suction picker. One would think it was named that because it uses suction to pluck the berries from the vines. But one would be wrong. Actually the machine sucks the energy right out of the person who is picking. The job is legendarily exhausting.

The basketball hoop in the top left of this photo is not part of the contraption. It's just on the wall next to where the picker is parked inside the warehouse.

Let's see... where was I? Oh yes-- the berries are now in sacks stacked on the cart. From the cart, the berries need to be transferred to a vehicle that can be driven on the road. This usually involves a brigade of people, hefting sacks from the stacks on the cart, handing them to the next person who then creates a new stack on the vehicle. In some situations this vehicle is a trailer which is hitched to a tractor (in this case, one from Russia with no power steering and indecipherable controls), and in some cases the bog has no track and cart at all and thus sacks are loaded directly onto a bog buggy, as seen here.

Rides on the bog buggy can be the most exciting part of harvest. Imagine perching on your tiptoes on the back six inches of a flatbed, using all your weight to steady the stacks of sacks of berries. Now add very uneven terrain and tree limbs and a good, driving rain.

Once the sacks of berries arrive at the warehouse, they have to be unloaded and stacked inside.

The stacking begins as close to this machine as possible.

This is a viner-- actually a super viner. This little hummer is the brainchild and work of Anne's brother Francis. It's a super viner because of the power of the fan. On the old viners, it could take upwards of ten minutes to separate a sack of berries from the vines and other debris. With a powerful fan, a sack of berries can be separated in seconds. Sacks of berries are dumped out onto the table of the viner, which shakes. The grid allows smaller things, like berries, to fall through while larger things, like long vines, stay on top for the worker to remove. Berries are shaken down the incline of the table and past the fan that blows most of the debris off of them before they are conveyed up and then dumped into a tote.

All totes are delivered to the warehouse in large stacks of their parts that look like this.
This is Francis, Anne's brother and inventor/builder of the super viner, using the forklift to move some tote parts into the warehouse for assembling. If you look closely, you'll see why we call him Wolfman.

Building totes is a great job for those with aggression to work out. Maya has a lot of aggression, so she was very qualified.

When I first worked here in the 80's, totes looked like this-- they were made of a pallet bottom with four plywood sides. The sides came with holes in them just big enough to accept the metal climps (yes, climps-- not clamps) which held them together. Building totes involved all sorts of mini-jobs, like separating the tangled mess of climps that were delivered in plastic bags, bending the climps so they were at just the right slightly acute angle to make them perfect for use... there were many. Now most of the totes come with all fours sides connected by some sort of odd heavy duty fabric and staples and look like this.

All you have to do is unfold them, arrange them on the pallet just so, and whack two of the sides in a strategic place to coax the metal pins to fall into place and secure the tote. It sounds simple, but it isn't always. And plywood is heavy, I'll remind you. Sometimes tote building creates the aggression, rather than releasing it.

Once the tote is built, it's labeled with the grower's number and the variety of berry (which this particular weekend was Stevens) and then shoved into place under the viner's conveyor belt.

Or you can do as Maya is doing here, and use the tote jack to do the muscling. Some warehouses have smoother floors than others. Maya got pretty good at moving stuff around with a jack.

This weekend it was taking about ten minutes to fill a tote-- a testament to both the efficiency of the super viner and the fantastic berry-to-vine ratio that a sack full of Stevens berries yields.

Here's some cranberry trivia: McFarland berries are smaller than the Stevens. A Furford picker is also a pruning machine, so some sacks yield more vines than berries. A sack full of vines is much lighter than a sack full of berries. Some bogs are surrounded by vegetation that deer like to eat, so some sacks can include deer droppings. The occasional sack will contain a frog-- sometimes even whole and living. Sacks can contain chunks of blackberry vines. What I'm saying here is, if all you see when you dump a sack onto a viner is berries and vines, it's kind of a surprise.

A full wet sack can weigh up to twenty pounds more than a full dry sack. Here we've hung up some especially saturated sacks to drip dry.

I must say that I am very fond of the smell of wet burlap. It reminds me of my twenties and what I thought at the time were really big problems to be worked out. Sigh.

There are many little side jobs to be done at harvest, too. Among these are:

Pitching back vines. Vines and other debris are blown out of the viner and pile up in the same spot in the dump truck. Maya is showing how you redistribute the vines in the bed of the truck to allow room for more.

Then of course eventually the truck needs to be dumped. That's another job for Wolfman.

Of course, first he needs to squeegee off the windshield so he can see where he's driving. And do you know where he's driving? Yeah, neither do I. It's one of the mysteries that prevails.

It's also important to pose triumphantly atop a pile of plywood. We thought that would be a good job for Logan and Quinn.

Quinn, 14, is spending the year hundreds of miles from all his friends, and completely isolated from anyone within ten years of his age. So Logan's job was to hang out with him and talk about Spore and FailBlog and other such teen boy pursuits.

If you complete all the jobs successfully, what you end up with is a warehouse full of this:

And if Ocean Spray does it's job, you end up with this:

Delicious! And even more refreshing than what Anne and I were ingesting in that first picture. Did I mention that Anne ate 45 raw cranberries in one minute in the cranberry eating contest this fall? The winner ate 48. The raw cranberry is an acquired taste. One that I'm proud to have.


  1. What an educational treat! Thanks for sharing harvest with us cranberry-novices! Katie Talbott

  2. Awesome! I just posted a bunch of pictures, you've got the details, this is great. I wish I had that focus.

  3. Looks like fun! Hello! Better late than never, and three days after Thanksgiving isn't a bad time to get an education in cranberryculture!

    Hey, my secret code word is "Needles". How appropriate for trying to post a comment on the blog of a knitter.

  4. It was by accident that i found this blog. I was trying to find pictures of a bog buggy to show someone in online forum.I actually went to school with Anne till she got promoted a grade..It is good to see she looks to be in good health, and a FYI the two older brothers D & F were ALWAYS eccentric ALWAYS.And her mom was nothing short of saint. And my name isn`t larry just a funny name for e-mail account.