HCT volunteer Gerry Beetham led three Harwich Cranberry History Walks this week at Sand Pond Woodlands to explore the history of the cranberry industry, its roots in Harwich, and to watch an active Cape Cod cranberry harvest.
Gathering at the trailhead on Great Western Road, the excursions began with a discussion of how the cranberry got its name and how Wampanoag indigenous people taught early settlers ways to use the berry. Moving to an overview of native bogs, Gerry shared where they can still be found on Cape Cod including wet dune swales of the National Seashore. The native cranberry later gave way to cultivated bogs for use by residents, eventually leading to the first commercial production of the cranberry. Proof of the industry’s roots in Harwich can still be found in the remnants of those early ventures around town.
The history of cranberry harvesting dates back to the early 19th century. Over the years, agricultural practices have evolved into the modern methods used today. The group was interested in the difference between a dry harvest and a wet harvest, including how each approach determines cranberry use. Cutting open a ripe berry reveals the hollow center, which causes the fruit to float during a wet harvest when bogs are flooded.
After this thorough discussion of Harwich’s cranberry history, the group ventured onto the forested trails of Sand Pond Woodlands and arrived at the bog that HCT leases to local grower Ray Thacher who manages the property. A wet harvest was actively underway as farmers used modern tools and methods to collect the bright red fruits floating on the flooded bog’s surface. Cameras were at the ready to capture the beauty of a Cape Cod cranberry harvest.
Over the past few decades, many Cape growers have faced challenges in the cranberry market in part due to oversupply from the Midwest and Canada, which contributes to lower cranberry prices. Climate change is causing interruptions to traditional growing practices. While some growers continue to farm, many bogs have been abandoned or sold.
At HCT, when considering a bog purchase, we take into account the condition of agricultural infrastructure, market trends, and conservation context. The Sand Pond bog is one of two working bogs owned by HCT. The other is located next to the bike trail in North Harwich and leased to father and son farmers Alan & Ben Hall.
Some retired bogs like those on Bank Street and at the corner of Pleasant Lake Ave. & Headwaters Drive are on a path of ecological restoration. Eco-restoration is the process of transitioning a retired bog back to native wetlands that were present before the land was converted to agriculture. To improve water quality, diversify wildlife habitats, and enhance the visitor experience, eco-restoration construction is underway now at HCT’s Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve in Harwich Port. To learn more about the Cold Brook Eco-Restoration Project and see an introductory video, please click here.
Photos below courtesy of HCT volunteer photographer Steve Furlong.