Featured in homemade and store-bought sauces, cranberries play a starring role in the fall and winter as part of holiday meals across the country. But here in Falmouth, they’re part of the everyday table- and landscape, appreciated all year long. Much like the similarly scarlet, but sweeter, strawberry. The cranberry’s contribution to the culture and economy of Falmouth is intertwined with its history. And while that impact has changed over the years, the significance has not. Cranberries are iconic to Cape Cod, along with sandy beaches, lighthouses and clam shacks. To visitors, they signify the idea of the Cape. To those of us who call this peninsula home, they’re a tart, tangible reminder of the past, harkening back to the simpler days of childhood.
The popularity of cranberry farming took off, prompting the founding of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association in 1888. One of the country’s oldest farmers organizations. The CCCGA was originally established to standardize cranberry-selling practices and today serves as a network. The association representing approximately 330 cranberry farmers across Massachusetts. The traditional method of dry harvesting is currently used for fresh cranberries, comprising about five percent of the state’s harvest. The other 95 percent is harvested wet, for juice, sauce, dried cranberries and other products.
Supply and demand, industrial and societal changes, and competition from growers in other states. This all had a negative impact on the local industry, making it less viable for small farmers. Many of whom relied upon the next generation of family for workforce. Until the 1990s, Massachusetts was the top cranberry-producing state in the country. Today, it is second to Wisconsin.
You can get a hands-on education about the evolution of the local cranberry industry by visiting the Coonamessett Greenway Heritage Trail in East Falmouth. Which features 500 acres of wetlands, which at one time were converted to cranberry bogs. However, the removal of native vegetation and the addition of sand for cranberry farming proved to be detrimental to the wetlands. The area has been restored in recent years to serve its original purpose as a sinuous river course and herring run. Visiting the trail is a reminder of the human impact on the natural world.
No matter the time of year, cranberries are a Cape Cod favorite. You can find them as a staple ingredient at your local farmers market, in everything from jams and soaps to vinaigrettes and ice cream. Have you tried the Cranberry Bog flavor of ice cream at Somerset Creamery? There’s a reason it’s a perennial favorite among visitors and locals alike.
While the impact of cranberry farming has changed over the last 200 years. The legacy remains a permanent aspect of Falmouth’s culture. Active bogs are still operated by commercial growers, and from late September through November, if you’re lucky, you just may happen upon a harvest. You’ll know as soon as you see cars pulled over on the side of the road, the same way locals brake for sunsets and rainbows. No matter how many times you witness this quintessentially Cape Cod slice of life, it never gets old. Especially on a crisp, fall day, when the bright-red berries pop against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. Captivating and hypnotic, it’s like peering through a window to the past.