The Sippican Lands Trust recently hosted a presentation given by Dr. Hilary Sandler, who shared the 21st century research efforts at the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Station in East Wareham.
Sandler has been working in the field of agricultural research, primarily focused on all things cranberry for over 30 years. She said the station has been in existence for 100 years, focused on helping growers identify best practices and sustain good land stewardship. Now part of the university’s College of Natural Sciences, the station covers 11 acres near Spectacle Pond. “You’ll always find cranberries near bodies of water,” said Sandler, who has been exploring with other researchers, students, and growers all the moving parts of an industry so iconic to the region.
Sharing some of the history of the cranberry industry, Sandler said that bogs in Massachusetts were created as glaciers moved across the landscape, sculpting out depressions that would later become freshwater kettle ponds. She said that today’s research focuses on hydrology use, plant nutrition, weed sciences, fruit diseases, and microbial studies with bogs that still bear the scars of glacial movement in their irregular borders.
Early in her presentation, Sandler touched on what is currently in the news – solar-array planning for agricultural lands, primarily in and around existing cranberry bogs. She said that the university has been studying the impact and viability of solar panels installed across irrigation ditches in active bogs, as well as panels installed on previously disturbed areas around bogs, a cultivation method known as “dual use,” in which solar panels are spaced to allow some light to filter through to plants being grown beneath the array.
This emerging concept was actually first considered some 10 years ago by solar developers. Today, however, it seems to be gaining traction. Recently this agricultural concept was proposed for bogs and land in Rochester, and another is actively underway in Carver. Sandler said that this type of partnership allows the landowners to maintain their agricultural status while benefiting financially from the solar companies’ use of the land. “It can be a revenue stream for the growers,” she said.
Of the bogs themselves, Sandler said today’s crops are almost all hybrid varieties that have been developed over decades to produce larger high-yield harvests. She called these varieties “super producers” with 40-percent more yield. This, however, has been a double-edged sword. Sandler noted that in the 1990s there was a glut of cranberries causing prices to plummet. Growers pursued new markets around the globe, new places to introduce a fruit for the first time. Some new export locations were found in the E.U., Australia, and Mexico, she stated. China is now beginning to cultivate its own berries, she said.
Our local economy does depend in part on the cranberry industry, Sandler told the participants. For one thing, cranberries are Massachusetts’ largest fruit crop, coming from approximately 12,700 acres. “It is a micro-crop compared to other fruit crops across the country,” she pointed out. But in this state, it employs 6,000 people, “directly and indirectly,” she said. Sandler said that a grower needs at least 80 acres of bogs to make a living.
And there is yet another challenge facing growers, Sandler shared; growers are primarily all senior citizens. “The average age of a grower is over 65 now.” Other challenges she noted were climate change, high production costs, and commercial-residential development of available open spaces. All are areas of concern for an industry so heavily integrated in our local culture.
To learn more about the UMass cranberry program, visit umass.edu/cranberry or sippicanlandstrust.org to view the video presentation.
By Marilou Newell