2016-11-10 / Front Page

Cranberry bog legacy lives on

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

John Lane, a friend of the Nest family who has rented space on the 100-acre farm property off of Alewive Road in Kennebunk, inspects the two one-acre cranberry bogs he helps maintain with Lee Cross, son-in-law of bog creator Robert Nest, who passed away in 2012. (Duke Harrington photo) John Lane, a friend of the Nest family who has rented space on the 100-acre farm property off of Alewive Road in Kennebunk, inspects the two one-acre cranberry bogs he helps maintain with Lee Cross, son-in-law of bog creator Robert Nest, who passed away in 2012. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — With Thanksgiving closing in fast, family meals planning turns to that staple of pilgrim harvest celebrations, the humble cranberry.

But what most people don’t know, John Lane says, is that they don’t have to get their berries “from away,” processed and packaged for sale in large grocery chains. Cranberries are grown right here in Maine — in fact, right here in Kennebunk.

“It just may be the best kept secret in town,” Lane says.

The cranberries are grown and cultivated at Grey Beaver Bog Farm on Alewive Road. As Lane, a New Hampshire electrician who has rented space on the 100-acre Nest property for about 20 years, talks about the operation, two cars pull up to the farmstand. Just inside the barn door, prime fruit recently sorted from the harvest on a century-old machine, sit for sale at $3 per pound. Neither driver is from Kennebunk, and neither was aware of the farm, stopping on impulse upon seeing the sign, “Cranberries,” by the road.

“See,” Lane says. “We’d really like to get word out to more locals that we’re here, because this really isn’t a hobby operation any more. It needs to be self-sustaining.”

The cranberry operation was launched by Robert Nest about five years before Lane, in town visiting his sister across the road, met the former construction company owner and began renting space on the back part of the farm, near where it abuts Alewive Pond.

After selling his company to his sons and retiring, Nest briefly considered turning the land, in his family for more than 325 years, into a golf course. But then Nest remembered a story he’d once read in a construc- tion journal about a man who turned an old sand pit into a cranberry bog. He did a little research, took a scouting trip out to Cape Cod, where he checked out the farm of Bob Johnson, an Ocean Spray cooperative member whom Nest had previously met and befriended thanks to his ownership of an Kennebunk-area camp. Nest bought the old sorting contraption on that trip and settled on the Ben Lears variety of cranberry originated in Wisconsin, getting advice and help from Johnson on building his bogs. Then, having by that time developed what he called “cranberry fever,” Nest logged up to 16 hours per day building a pair of one-acre cranberry bogs, along with a series of five irrigation ponds.

Nest passed away in 2012 at age 83 and the farm passed into a trust run by his four children. Today daughter Patty logs countless hours at the sorting machine each October, loading freshly harvested berries into the top and inspecting for prime quality what comes out the conveyer belt at the bottom. Along the way, the berries pass through five levels of the wooden machine, which uses a series of belts and old cast-iron gear wheels to wisk berries that fail to bounce to the next level out the back and into a bucket, where the socalled utility berries are gathered for making juice.

“A good cranberry will bounce five times,” she explains.

Meanwhile, work on the bogs is done largely by Lane and Patty’s husband Lee.

“It’s actually mostly done by Lee,” Lane says, as he leads a tour of the bogs, where vines are carefully maintained at about six inches in length, and the fruit dry raked each year. The bogs are only flooded at the end of the season, Patty says, with those last berries sold off for juice.

Some fresh berries are sold for use in restaurants, but most go out the door as fresh product on the farmstand, in bags from 1 to 5.5 pounds. Every customer gets a recipe sheet.

“Try the cranberry nut bread,” Patty urges. “Everyone loves it.”

Cranberries, native to North American swamps, have been grown commercially in Maine since before its entry into the union. But by early 1990s, disease, pests, and the industrial revolution of canned cranberry sauce all but killed the desire to grow cranberries in Maine. According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Office, the first modern commercial harvest was not cultivated until 1991, just about the time Nest was bulldozing his land to get into the game.

By 2000, with a nudge here and there from the state, there were 267 acres dedicated to the crop, about the same as it’s previous height, in the 1850s.

“The state thought growing cranberries would be a good way to help the fishermen get by outside of their regular season,” Cross said, “but then what naturally happened once they got everybody into it, the market collapsed.”

The wholesale price for cranberries reportedly got down as low as 14 cents per pound. Today, Charlie Armstrong, a cranberry specialist with the cooperative extension, says there are only 110 acres of cranberry bogs still in production, largely concentrated in Washington County.

“Not so long ago there were four other cranberry farms in the area. Now, we are certainly the only one left in Kennebunk and I think we may be the only one in all of York County.”

Armstrong says there about now only about 20 commercial cranberry growers in Maine, which last year produced a total crop valued at $1.5 million. This year, despite the drought, cranberries, which are about 90 percent water and usually require about an inch of water per week, most farms managed to put out bumper crops.

At Grey Beaver Bog, the yield was about 1,500 pounds, Lane says. A refrigeration truck procured last year is full of product, waiting to be sold, he said.

“This has been one of the most incredible seasons I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been involved, intermittently, in the operation,” Lane said. “We usually harvest between 600 and 800 25-pound boxes. This year, it’s been closer to 1,000 boxes. So, we really want to move this fruit.”

“When Bob ran the farm, he did it pretty much for his enjoyment as a retirement activity, and pretty much everyone he know volunteered to help him,” Lane said. “But now it pretty much has to be a money-making proposition, or at least a break-even proposition. So, the dynamics have changed.

“Right now,” Lane said, “a lot of time is spent on maintenance, trying to catch back up. When Bob got ill, a lot of things for neglected for a little while.”

“We took over in 2014,” Cross said, adding with a laugh, “But dad, he always had free help. He had an army under him. He’d get a big order and anyone who came to visit got drafted to sort cranberries.

“We’re just trying to keep it going, just because our dad loved his cranberries so much,” Cross said. “It’s been worth it, if only because of the great satisfaction from the people who come in, wonderful people, and they’re always so excited. They say, ‘These are the best cranberries,” and that means a lot, because it’s a testament to what our father did.

“If we can get things straightened out, we’ll be able to put some money into the trust, so it can go on to the next generation,” Cross said.

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