`Politics' Corrals Bay State Bogs

Cranberry demand has increased, but growers say legislators have obstructed expansion

DONNA JEFFERS'S cranberry bog is only 43 miles south of Boston City Hall. But to Ms. Jeffers, the fast-paced, often relentless political circles in which she traveled seem refreshingly far away. Four years ago she left her post as the Hub's director of foster care review to carry on a family farming tradition.

"The business of human services is such an enormous field and such a difficult area ... you work very hard and sometimes don't see the changes," Ms. Jeffers says. "In agriculture, you can see the fruits of your labor - and losses - before you, so it's easier to understand."

The fruits of this year's labor are before Jeffers on this day early in the harvest season. She beams as she gazes out at a group of hip-booted men "corraling" the season's first crop in a city-block-sized area that's been flooded with water.

Wearing blue jeans, L.L. Bean ankle boots, and a hooded sweat shirt the same deep crimson as this day's harvest, the exuberant owner of 2,300 acres of marshland - upon which sits a 530-acre bog - appears to be without a worry in the world.

But when the conversation turns from this year's promising season, expected to yield 190 million pounds statewide, to the future of Massachusetts's place as the premier producer of cranberries, her glow fades and her brow begins to furrow. As she talks, it becomes evident that politics has seeped its way into her marshlands.

Frost, pests, and sometimes vandals are day-to-day concerns, but expansion in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington - even in Chile, Ireland, and Canada - presents an increasingly worrisome challenge to the 500 or so cranberry farmers in the Bay State. They have reigned as the world's leading producers ever since Henry Hall hand-picked the first commercial crop on Cape Cod 175 years ago.

Since the 1920s, when it produced 80 percent of the country's berries, Massachusetts has gradually slipped to 44 percent, with Wisconsin taking a close second at 33 percent - and growing.

The issue is deeper and more complex than competition or state pride, however. In the past decade, nationwide demand for the fruit has risen radically. This is partly a result of Ocean Spray Cranberries' successful marketing of the juice to health-conscious Americans. In addition, cooks have discovered new ways to bake, boil, and blend the berries for dishes other than the sauce served with Thanksgiving turkey.

At the same time that demand has soared, Massachusetts legislators, responding to developers' interests, have made the process of expansion cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming, say industry experts.

"The opportunity for future gains in productivity is limited without some expansion of the bogs," says Jeff Carlson, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association. "Growers have the potential to expand some through the reclamation of abandoned bogs, but government regulations make even the most modest expansion difficult at best." The application process for three-acre expansion can cost as much as $100,000 in fees and take up to four years, says Carlson.

Expansion is easier in Wisconsin. "We operate under a different government [than Massachusetts]," says Tom Lochner, director of Wisconsin's cranberry growers association. "We're a less urbanized state."

He says that licensing in his state only requires approval on state and federal levels, whereas Massachusetts requires local consent. Other obstacles facing Bay State cranberry growers are steep property costs and taxes.

One solution, says Irene Sorensen, is to work with researchers and scientists to get a yield per acre that's better than the current average of 150 barrels (at 100 pounds per barrel). Ms. Sorensen is a spokeswoman for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. in Lakeville, Mass., a farmer-owned cooperative and the world's leading marketer of cranberry products.

Another solution is to instill a greater appreciation of the industry's contribution to the state's economy ($200 million per year, and 5,500 jobs), its heritage in the state (cranberries were served at the first Thanksgiving in nearby Plymouth in 1621), and the growers' role as stewards of the wetlands. "When we can get people to come and see and learn about the industry, they can see the difference between farming a wetland crop and a shopping mall development," says Jeffers.

Wetlands provide a habitat for plants (crowberry, pickerelweed, and water lilies, for example) and wildlife: Growers have spotted osprey, kestrel, bluebirds, eagles, and foxes. Wetlands control flooding, and naturally filter pollutants from groundwater. Of the bog owners' caretaking role, Carlson says, "The growers are taking the environment into account on a day-to-day basis."

Massachusetts's Commissioner of Environmental Protection, Daniel Greenbaum, said in an Associated Press interview, "There's no question that bogs are productive wetlands. But there's a question as to whether they [converted bogs] are as productive as natural wetlands would be." A state-appointed panel is now reviewing wetlands regulations to see whether restrictions can be eased.

Jack Angley is one grower here who's frustrated by what he sees as political roadblocks. The 30-acre bog he and his wife bought from his father sits on 100 acres of marshland that contrast dramatically with the towering pines at its borders. Unable to assume abandoned bogs, Mr. Angley, who is a fresh-fruit grower (as opposed to a grower of fruit to be processed), began the painstaking process of creating a wetland on six of these 100 acres, only to be forced by regulations to bring it to a two-year halt.

Bundled up in layers of sweat shirts and a well-worn jacket, and hovering over stacked crates of berries that he and his team of seven prepared for that afternoon's airlift, Angley describes his dilemma. "This is a wetland plant, we have to maintain it on a wetland environment.... We need legislation to streamline the process for obtaining a permit to build a bog."

Despite the many challenges of bog ownership, Angley has stayed in the business for half a century. What keeps him going? "The intellectual challenge of it," he says, grinning. "There are no answers. I'm always figuring out why I didn't succeed botanically or horticulturally."

When he's not looking for answers at the bog, Angley is looking for them in the boardroom after a town meeting or at the gathering place of the other myriad associations that he is a part of. But the highlight of his week is his gig as a piano player at a nearby nightclub.

His wife, who was exposed to life on a bog when she grew up here, keeps the company books and is also an avid cook. Between them, they have seven grown children and 12 grandchildren. Some work at the bog, some are still too young, and others have left Mom and Dad's business for "real jobs," says Ms. Angley.

Do they ever tire of the taste of their beloved berry? "Never," says Angley. "It's a bitter fruit by itself, but it bakes well; Jack hasn't stopped asking for his favorite pie - cranberry raisin."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.