Visions of cranberries

By Pat Waring - December 6, 2007

Once Thanksgiving arrives and Christmas is on the way, cranberries seem to pop up everywhere. The glowing red gems appear in sauces, chutneys, relishes, tea breads, and festively strung on evergreens. While most of us think about cranberries primarily during this wintry holiday season, Carol Magee has them on her mind year-round. As director of the Vineyard Open Land Foundation, Ms. Magee has been instrumental in an ambitious project to restore the old Duarte cranberry bogs on Lambert's Cove Road in Vineyard Haven. Today, despite uncertain funding and logistical challenges, a small, productive organic bog is well established and the outlook for future expansion is bright.

"Cranberries are close to people's hearts for some reason," remarked Ms. Magee during an interview just before Thanksgiving. "I get fascinated by cranberries."

Carol Magee, Eric Peters and Ivo Meisner
At the newly restored Cranberry Acres bog, Carol Magee (center) director of the Vineyard Open Land Foundation, is flanked by board chairman Eric Peters and longtime trustee Ivo Meisner, who holds an antique cranberry scoop. Photos by Ralph Stewart. Click photo for larger version.

Although she began the project as a total novice in 1994, by now Ms. Magee is a wellspring of knowledge about the idiosyncrasies of cranberries and the challenging complexities of organic growing. The fact that cranberries, along with blueberries and grapes, are the three fruit plants indigenous to Martha's Vineyard and this part of New England makes their cultivation here particularly appropriate, she said.

The Cranberry Acres project aims to put the old bog back into production, to use organic methods in order to preserve the health of the wetlands, and to make homegrown cranberries available to Islanders. But Ms. Magee says it has a larger significance - to model a harmonious combination of land preservation, agriculture, and development on a single property.

"The whole purpose is to demonstrate that you can have sensible agricultural use of a natural resource and still protect it at the same time," said Ms. Magee. "It's going to be more and more necessary to use land wisely as the population increases. This is an example of that."

The one-time six-acre bog now comprises a half- acre cultivated plot surrounded by scrubby maple swamps bordered by taller trees. It is part of a much larger 45-acre parcel that the Vineyard Open Land Foundation purchased in 1982. Today, eight picturesque house lots are discretely tucked through the woodlands around the bog, far from view of the road and wetlands. Proceeds from selling seven of the lots provided funds to preserve the remaining 23 acres of conservation land including the bogs, reservoir ponds, and upland. The property is under a conservation restriction granted to the Tisbury Conservation Commission.

Eugene Bergeron
Workers from the crew of Island landscaper Eugene Bergeron used extreme care as they placed delicate new plants in the sandy soil last year. Click photo for larger version.

The Vineyard Open Land Foundation gave the eighth lot as the site of the Mary Wakeman Center, and conducted fundraising and construction services for that building to house five Island conservation groups.

History and challenges

The property's agricultural history began many decades in the past when, in the late 1800s, a productive cranberry bog lay here. Beside it was a processing shed which now remains, although sorely dilapidated. Some younger Islanders recall daring childhood escapades to the old shed, widely reputed to be haunted.

During its most recent heyday beginning in the 1940s, it was Manny Duarte who owned and tended the bog and sold the tangy red berries both on and off the Island. According to Ms. Magee, story has it that Mr. Duarte was devoted to his cranberries. "He would say, 'Some men like to go to barrooms; I like to go to my cranberry bogs,'" she related.

But around 1970, perhaps because of a change in the value of cranberries or the growing demand for inexpensive tourist accommodations, Mr. Duarte converted the property to a campground known as Cranberry Acres. It thrived for a time, and became a popular destination, but was eventually shut down. It would soon have a new and different reincarnation, however.

An Island native, Ms. Magee had worked with the Vineyard Open Land Foundation since the mid-1970s as administrator and also had a hand in planning several projects. Becoming director of the agency in 1994, she committed herself to seeing the bog's restoration accomplished. It was a tall order. Funding was needed and Ms. Magee, with no agricultural background, had to learn about cultivating cranberries. The goal was to restore the bog using organic methods, not only to achieve a cleaner, healthier product but also to avoid harming the water and wildlife in the sensitive wetland area.

cranberry bog
The Vineyard Open Land Foundation's cranberry bog off Lambert's Cove Road in Tisbury is thriving again, promising abundant harvests for years to come. Click photo for larger version.

Ms. Magee soon discovered that life as an organic grower is not just an idyllic bowl of cranberries. She could not obtain any large funding grants, the old bogs needed extensive clearing and restoration, and cranberry cultivation, especially by organic methods, held unique challenges.

But Ms. Magee was encouraged when, attending cranberry growing classes at the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Experiment Station in Wareham, along with Vineyard Open Land Foundation trustee Ivo Meisner, she met Robert and Kristine Keese. The couple had established a successful organic bog in Plymouth, after having been assured it was impossible. "They took it as a challenge," laughed Ms. Magee.

Along with owning and operating their certified organic Cranberry Hill Farm for 19 years, the Keeses manage bogs for the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Manomet. The Keeses' bogs were the first in the United States to attain organic certification. Ms. Magee and Mr. Meisner promptly began gathering information and tips from Mr. and Ms. Keese who were glad to help others committed to following in their footsteps. The Plymouth couple traveled to the Vineyard to consult about the site and later helped in obtaining and planting cranberries.

And although major grants remained unattainable, Ms. Magee decided to move ahead slowly, securing funds from local sources and doing as much work as income allowed. A number of local and Island-connected private foundations, agencies, and individuals comprise the long list of supporters.

Along with financial contributions, generous Vineyarders have provided professional services and other assistance to help the cranberry project succeed. A current capital campaign seeks slightly more than $50,000 to complete funding the $250,000 expense of establishing the half-acre bog and managing the property.

Handle with care

Although one might think they simply thrive like little wild shrubs in a wetland, cranberries are actually extremely delicate. Care must be taken in planting, weeding, and harvesting. Scrupulous care must be taken during both weeding and harvesting so that runners are not disturbed or roots dislodged.

Producing the berries according to organic guidelines is even more demanding. The Vineyard Open Land Foundation bog has been certified as organic by Bay State Organic Certifiers since 2000, Ms. Magee says proudly. But to maintain this status, strict requirements must be observed. An inspector arrives annually to check the site and ask questions before the bog can be certified once more. Any products used for fertilizing or pest control must be on a list of approved substances. And it is not always possible to plan ahead. Last summer, an infestation of worms - the same ones that were demolishing leaves on trees and shrubs - decimated the crop. An organic spray was located and applied, but too late to save this year's berries. Ms. Magee admitted that keeping up with organic growing practices is an ongoing challenge and learning experience for her.

"People don't realize how much detail has gone into this," reflected Ms. Magee as she recounted the years of work. She looks forward to the time when the labor will see fruit - literally. It is expected that the half-acre plot will produce some 38 100-pound barrels of cranberries each year, bringing in approximately $38,000 to $40,000 to keep the project going.

Although no Vineyard Open Land Foundation cranberries were on the market this year, the Keeses cooperated once again by making their own organic product available for Island sale during the fall. VOLF will use profits from the sales to help fund continuing work at the bog.

Along with expanding the area under cultivation, Ms. Magee and Vineyard Open Land Foundation trustees now envision renovating the old shed as both a cranberry processing facility and a museum. A small addition would house the agency's administrative offices and greenhouse for propagation. Ms. Magee imagines that information on both Cranberry Acres and VOLF's many other successful projects could be displayed, offering education on how development, conservation, and even agriculture, can work together to great benefit.

"I'm pretty pleased," says Ms. Magee with a modest smile. "It's my legacy to Martha's Vineyard."

For more information on Cranberry Acres and other Vineyard Open Land Foundation projects, or information on purchasing organic cranberries, call 508-693-3280.