From Farm to Table: Cranberries

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“From Farm to Table” is a series of posts showcasing the small-scale farming culture of New England. Despite what people assume, there’s a lot of it going on around here. Midwesterners can barely conceptualize a farm that doesn’t stretch on and on, with stubby, leafy rows of soy beans blending into tall rows of yellow-topped cornstalks, and long, flat rows of pig barns, white-painted farmhouses and an occasional mammoth grain silo as the only man-made structures you might see for miles. Farming is very different around here, but just as culturally vital.

Last month, Peter and I visited a cranberry bog in Chatham, on Cape Cod. As any casual reader of this blog knows, Peter and I are frequent visitors to Cape Cod — even more so now that we live in Massachusetts. The Cape is great in so many ways, but especially for the deep sense of rural tranquility it can quickly impart (in the off-season) to someone who lives a mere hour away in the suburbs of Boston. And if you’re not from Massachusetts, you can be forgiven for not realizing that — like in most rural areas — there are lots of farms on Cape Cod: cranberry farms.

Growing up in Indiana you really only associate commercial farming with corn and soybeans. Most people, in general, I think, associate commercial farming with these sorts of mega crops. And for good reason. During our tour, our tour guide (also the bog’s owner) told us it’s mostly these large farms that lobby for and benefit from government policies, including subsidies, buybacks, etc. Cape cranberries don’t receive a lot of government support, even though the industry has been struggling.

Cranberry farming presents formidable barriers to entry, the most discouraging one being time. It can take four years — or more — to set up a new bog and start producing fruit, but a bog that gets going will produce for 100 years. Not the most adaptable arrangement for a business that, like all businesses, is driven by market pressures. These pressures can come and go in much less time than four years, and no economic trend is likely to sustain itself for 100 years. Cranberry farming is a line of work that can come with long stretches of boom years and long stretches of bust years.

According to our tour guide, the 1990s were a boom time for cranberry farmers, so he and many other farmers got into the business. Then the market bottomed out, and it’s never really recovered. The reason? People don’t drink juice anymore. The main market for wet-harvested cranberries (where the berries are beaten off the bush and skimmed off the top of the bog after it’s been flooded) has always been juice. Wet-harvested cranberries also go into relishes, jellies, sauces and other processed foods. As you can imagine, public health programs that have (rightly) attempted to reduce the amount of processed sugars in the American diet have had a dramatic effect on juice consumption, especially cranberry juice, which tends to be heavily sweetened to mask the fruit’s natural bitterness.

The one cranberry market that can be said to be booming? Dried cranberries, the kind that are sold straight as Craisins or at farm stands. Unfortunately, dry-harvested cranberries, the only kind that can be used for these purposes, are only 10 percent of Massachusetts’ cranberry crop. Our tour guide said he sets aside a portion of his crop for dry harvesting, and he has other ideas for making ends meeting when prices are low, including putting some marketing muscle toward growing the popularity of “heirloom” cranberries, varietals that aren’t typically sold on the mass market.

Now that we’ve explored the farm, let’s put some cranberries on the table — just in time for Thanksgiving.

Cranberry Risotto

This recipe is a modification of one from the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association.

2 c. cranberry juice
1 c. Arborio rice
6 Brussels sprouts, chopped
1 small onion, minced
1/4 c. parsley, chopped
2 oz. feta Cheese, crumbled
1/4 c. dried cranberries, to garnish
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Heat cranberry juice on high. While you’re waiting for it to boil, saute sprouts and onion in oil until they’re soft. Add rice and turn until coated with oil, then add boiling cranberry juice. Let that simmer on low heat until all the juice is absorbed into the rice. Add feta and chopped parsley. Garnish with dried cranberries and a sprig of parsley.

Cranberry Boulevardier

A Boulevardier is basically a Negroni with whisky. It’s a nice fall twist on one of my favorite cocktails.

1 shot of bourbon whiskey
1 shot of Campari
1 shot of sweet vermouth
1 shot of cranberry juice
Garnish with whole or dried cranberries

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