You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

Ripe history: How cranberries became a coastal fixture in the Northwest

  • 0
  • 6 min to read
McPhail Family Farms

The McPhail Family Farms wet harvest their cranberries by flooding the fields with water. The cranberries, being more buoyant than water, float to the top and allow workers to push the berries onto conveyer belts and into trucks.

Take a drive along the Long Beach Peninsula and you are bound to see hundreds of bright-red cranberries.

The fruit, known for its bright color and bitter taste, is one of the North Coast’s most popular exports. Yet, this hasn’t always been the case.

For several years, cranberry harvesting struggled to take off. Farmers were left frustrated until the help of a college student in the early 1920s. Since the student’s arrival, the cranberry industry steadily grew to what it is today.

The Cape Cod of the Pacific Northwest

On the West Coast, cranberries are harvested in British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon. In Washington, bogs color the Long Beach Peninsula and Grays Harbor locales. Oregon bogs are found in Clatsop County near Gearhart and southern Oregon.

“It’s such a unique crop. It’s only grown in certain parts of the country, where there’s sandy soil. That’s really what you need, and cool ocean nights,” said Paula (Saunders) Reagor, a Long Beach Cranberry Museum employee.

The fruit is also grown in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

“If you were to look at a map, all of the cranberries in the states are on the same latitude,” Reagor said.

Cranberries came to the Long Beach Peninsula in 1852 when James C. Swan of Massachusetts purchased land near Bone River, which lies along the Willapa Hills. Swan’s bog was unsuccessful and short-lived, according to the Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation’s book “Pacific Coast Cranberries: The Cranberry Industry in Pacific County.”

In the 1880s, the peninsula saw its first successful cranberry bog after Anthony Chabot, also from Massachusetts, started a bog. Chabot wasn’t experienced with cranberry harvesting and relied on help from family members and employees.

“He was astonished at how much the peninsula resembles Cape Cod,” Reagor said.

Cranberry harvest Long Beach

Cranberries are harvested annually in the fields next to the Cranberry Museum in Long Beach.

Chabot’s bog lasted about 10 years, until his nephew, Robert Chabot, started a bog in Grays Harbor County. Robert Chabot had been an incremental force with his uncle’s bog. He quickly found success in Grays Harbor.

Robert Chabot’s bog was the first in Washington state not located on the peninsula.

It’d be about 20 years until cranberry harvesting picked up for peninsula farmers.

In 1910, syndicates advertising farmland led to many new bog owners. The owners struggled until the 1920s, when Daniel “D.J.” Crowley arrived to help farmers.

Crowley was sent to the peninsula by the State College of Washington, now known as Washington State University. The college assigned Crowley to investigate problems cranberry farmers faced on the Washington coast.

At the time, Crowley was a candidate for a bachelor of science degree in plant pathology.

“He really was the one who turned it around for the farmers,” Reagor said. “He went from bog to bog, working with each farmer.”

Through Crowley’s studies, he was able to not only earn his degree, but help the cranberry farming industry nationwide.

How cranberry farming has grown

berry harvest

Thousands of berries fall into the truck bins.

Blueberries, elderberries and cranberries are the only berries native to North America.

West Coast farmers produce about 1 million 100-pound barrels of cranberries annually, which is about 25% of the nation’s total crop. British Columbia produces the most cranberries each year, followed by Oregon, then Washington.

When Crowley was assigned to research Long Beach’s cranberry bogs in the 1920s, farmers were losing about 40% of the crop to diseases and insects. His research solved many of the farmers’ problems.

“They didn’t even have picker machines,” said Melinda Crowley, Cranberry Museum director and Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation board member. “They did everything on their knees and by hand.”

Melinda Crowley is the daughter-in-law of D.J. Crowley. She married his son, Lee, in 1992.

Until the 1940s, growers on the Washington coast used dry cranberry harvesting. During the 40s, most cranberry farmers on the Long Beach Peninsula transitioned to wet harvesting, which requires farmers to flood their bogs and cradle the berries using a large tool called a boom. The boom is pulled through the bog and captures berries as farmers bring it toward a corner of the bog.

During the 1940s and 50s, cranberry farmers got creative. In the late 1950s, J. M. Furford of Grayland invented a picking machine similar to lawn mowers for dry harvesting. Vacuums were also a popular harvesting tool.

Wet harvesters used flailers, which was similar to Furford’s invention. Scoops and nets were also used by wet harvesters.

Cranberry harvest

Hundreds of people visit the Long Beach Peninsula every year to watch the harvest of bright red cranberries.

Around the same time, farmers started working with Ocean Spray, an agricultural cooperative.

“Because Ocean Spray was here and the need for cranberries was here, the growers had to be innovative and come up with ways for getting more crops harvested,” Melinda Crowley said. “That’s when they developed the floating process, and gas pickers were developed.”

Ocean Spray sells a variety of cranberry products like juices, jellies and Craisins.

“Most everyone sells to Ocean Spray,” Reagor said. “They make the products and do the marketing.”

Ardell and Malcom McPhail are Ocean Spray’s biggest contributor on the peninsula. The couple purchased their first bog in the 1980s, and have since expanded to own about 50 acres and operate their business, CranMac Farms.

“We need Ocean Spray to come up with some new products,” Ardell McPhail said. “Craisins were huge. That helped us a lot.”

The McPhails produce about 25% of the peninsula’s cranberries, and 12% of Washington state’s. Their son Steve also owns a local farm, bringing the McPhails’ total contribution to be about 30% of the peninsula’s berries.

Modern challenges

Like cranberry farmers of previous decades, modern farmers have to manage pests and weeds. Farmers use fungicides, herbicides and insecticides to protect their berries.

“People think you’ve got all these pesticides and you’re throwing everything out on the berries. When you know how much things cost, you’re not going to be throwing a whole bunch of stuff out,” Ardell McPhail said. “With all this dampness, you need to use something.”

Farmers also have to pay attention to temperature changes. If the temperature gets too cold, berries may freeze. And vice versa, on sunny, warm days, farmers have to take advantage of the weather so they can prune their plants.

cranberry harvest

Kim Patten stands knee-deep in a cranberry bog while pushing berries toward a conveyer belt to pull them out of the field and deposit them in a truck.

“A lot of being a successful cranberry farmer has to do with timing, being vigilant and taking care of your responsibilities,” Malcom McPhail said.

“Especially timing,” Ardell McPhail added.

Another major challenge facing farmers today is cost.

“Circumstances right now are not that good from the standpoint of the price for cranberries and the cost of producing cranberries,” Ardell McPhail said. “It’s a pretty tight situation. We almost break even.”

The main cause behind the cost issues are overproduction and labor costs.

“Most everybody knows that these are not good economic times for cranberry farmers. Prices are down,” Malcom McPhail said. “Prices go up and down. That’s farming. We’re down a bit.”

harvest harrow

A farmer rides a harvest harrow through the bogs to release the berries from the stems.

Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation 

The Long Beach research station was created and led by D.J. Crowley. His research, and that of following directors Charles Doughty, Azmi Shawa and Kim Patten, has been used nationwide.

Crowley changed the industry in the 1940s after farmers adopted his suggestion to use sprinklers. Doughty was known for managing a fungus that took over cranberry twigs. Shawa and Patten made strides with weed control.

The Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation formed in 1992 when Washington State University closed the Long Beach research station.

“They wanted to move the station to Mount Vernon,” Melinda Crowley said. “Well, the growers said ‘You can’t do that. We don’t have cranberries up there. We need to research here.’”

In response to the closure, the foundation, which is made up mostly by farmers and volunteers, purchased the station and its surrounding land.

“Our main goal is to create educated consumers. It’s necessary for the industry and that’s what we’re here for,” Melinda Crowley said.

Since the foundation’s purchase, the research station has stayed open through volunteers’ efforts. Washington State University funds the salaries of the research station’s employees.

“Things have gotten more restrictive, complicated and expensive on how to farm. It’s not only cranberries, it’s everywhere,” Melinda Crowley said. “That’s why we have WSU here; to help us get through the changes. We need WSU.”

Cranberries

In modern day harvests, cranberry bogs are flooded and stirred up to release the buoyant berries from the stems to the surface of the water. The berries are then swept off the water and loaded into trucks.

In 1993, the foundation opened the Long Beach Cranberry Museum in 1993.

The museum, which is free to visit, shows the peninsula’s history of cranberry harvesting through photos and equipment. The museum is open daily from April to mid-December.

“What’s going to happen in the future? Our education dictates where we’re going. That’s what the foundation is all about,” Melinda Crowley said. “We’re here to help growers grow a better cranberry, and so the public can become better educated.”

In addition to the museum, there is a gift shop that features cranberry products such as fresh berries, jams, ice cream, books and sweatshirts. Gift shop proceeds help keep the museum open.

Outside the museum, visitors can take self-guided tours along cranberry bogs. During the peninsula’s annual Cranberrian Fair, visitors can watch farmers harvest in the bogs.

In 2020, the fair will celebrate its 100th year.

“There wasn’t a festival during the Depression and World War II. It was hard times then,” Reagor said.

Since World War II, the festival has been in full swing. The fair is held the second weekend of October.

“If I didn’t have the right people in the gift shop and the museum, it wouldn’t work,” Melinda Crowley said. “They’re interested. It’s not just a job for them. They’ve taken it on as their own business. It’s part of their lives, which is wonderful.”

Alyssa Evans is the editor of Coast Weekend. Contact her at 971-704-1721 or aevans@dailyastorian.com.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.