Friday, October 7, 2011

Building up a craving for cranberry sauce

Drive through the Pinelands any weekday in October, and there's a fair chance you'll run into a cranberry harvest. New Jersey is third in the nation in cranberry production, and it's still done the old-fashioned way: flood the fields, let the berries rise to the top and scoop 'em up.

I happened upon a harvest crew on County Route 563 outside of Chatsworth last fall and stopped to check it out. A trio of cab trucks with big bins on the back, parked on an earthen berm right next to the side of the road. As I got closer, I saw the conveyor belt and the glistening of wet cranberries floating within the confines of a big yellow floating boom. Workers in hip waders were shaking the submerged berry bushes with the tools of the trade, then pushing the crop with wooden boards to the end of the conveyor, where they were scooped up and ultimately dropped into big crates on top of the trucks, where another worker used another board to distribute the load evenly. Water streamed from the bottoms of the crates, having been transported up along with the berries. This was all happening within feet of the edge of the road, as if it were some sort of demonstration arranged by the tourism bureau. It was like one of those Sesame Street segments on how food gets from the farm to the supermarket. Who could resist stopping to take pictures? In fact, someone else already had. I pulled to the side of the road and rolled down the window to grab a few shots.

I felt a little weird about stopping just to watch other people work, but the crew seemed okay with it and even waved over when they noticed I'd stopped on the opposite shoulder. Stepping out of the car, I crossed the two-lane road to get a better view. As one truck would be filled with berries, the worker atop would jump down and wave the next truck into position as the laden truck drove off and hook around to the county road to drop its load at the main barn. Meanwhile, the workers standing waist deep in the bog would keep the crop coming through the conveyor as long as a truck was beneath to catch it. It was a well oiled process, and it struck me that in essence, it probably hadn't changed in years. Maybe the conveyor was faster than an old one, or the booms were sturdier rubber, but there were no computers, no outsourcing to cheaper labor thousands of miles away.

Other people stopped and got out of their cars from time to time as I watched the crew, and to a person, they all had broad smiles on their faces. We exchanged greetings and brief statements about craving cranberry muffins or expecting to see the two farmers from the Ocean Spray commercial, but mostly, we were all taken in by the beauty of the tableau before us. The blue sky reflected in the flooded bogs, contrasted by the yellow boom and ripe red cranberries. Feeling the warmth of the sun, and the anticipation of Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce, I just stood there with a dumb grin on my face.

Chatsworth is center stage for the cranberry industry in New Jersey, and they celebrate the annual harvest with a cranberry festival. This year, it'll be on October 15 and 16. I haven't checked it out yet, so I can't give you a recommendation one way or the other, but it seems to me that if you like cranberries, it'll do just fine!

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