N.B. cranberry farmer steps up with terraced beds

 Melvin Goodland with a burlap bag full of bright red cranberries. The cranberries are harvested with self-propelled machines, with large burlap bags placed on the back of the machines to catch the berries. (Joan LeBlanc photos)

Melvin Goodland with a burlap bag full of bright red cranberries. The cranberries are harvested with self-propelled machines, with large burlap bags placed on the back of the machines to catch the berries. (Joan LeBlanc photos)

by Joan LeBlanc
It’s cranberry harvest time again and it seems that the lack of rain during the growing season hasn’t affected this year’s crop yields at Coastal Cranberries in Dorchester, N.B.

“We’re going to have a great crop this year if we can get a few days without rain to get it all harvested,” said Melvin Goodland in mid-October. He and his wife Georgina own Coastal Cranberries. For the past few years, their son Matthew has also joined in the family operation.

 Dry-harvesting cranberries by hand machine is labour-intensive, but it allows the operator to have more control over the harvest. The machines are self-propelled and move along steadily, always in the same direction as the vine growth. The machines pluck the berries, feed them upward, and deposit them in burlap bags at the rear of the machines. A helper follows close by to continually remove and replace filled bags.

Dry-harvesting cranberries by hand machine is labour-intensive, but it allows the operator to have more control over the harvest. The machines are self-propelled and move along steadily, always in the same direction as the vine growth. The machines pluck the berries, feed them upward, and deposit them in burlap bags at the rear of the machines. A helper follows close by to continually remove and replace filled bags.

The Goodlands are the only cranberry growers in this southeastern corner of New Brunswick, and their operation is one of about 20 across the province. They have 30 acres of land in the heart of the historic little village of Dorchester.

A native Newfoundlander, Melvin Goodland spent many years serving in the Canadian navy before retiring in 2003. He’s also a former mayor of Dorchester. Goodland admitted recently that it was initially Georgina’s idea to grow cranberries. “Her brother Kevin Simmons is also a cranberry grower,” said Goodland. “He owns and operates the Lighthouse Cranberry Company in Point Prim, P.E.I.”

Because their land sits on a 10-degree slope, their cranberries are grown on four terraced beds comprising nine and a half acres.

 After the cranberries are harvested, they go through a blower machine, which removes most leaves and other vine debris. From left, Josh Allaby, Melvin Goodland, and Matthew Goodland use a vintage wooden blower machine at the Goodland home.

After the cranberries are harvested, they go through a blower machine, which removes most leaves and other vine debris. From left, Josh Allaby, Melvin Goodland, and Matthew Goodland use a vintage wooden blower machine at the Goodland home.

“I had seen terraced gardens in other places and I thought we could make that work,” said Goodland. “The village’s sewerage line goes right through the middle of our land. So we had to make our beds so that they didn’t cross over the lines. We built a road beside it and built our beds on either side of it. It’s worked out very well.”

And although the land initially required restructuring, there has never been a lack of water on the property. “We’re fortunate to have a spring which provides our water needs for the cranberries,” said Goodland.

DRY HARVESTING

 The Goodlands use a vintage wooden machine called a bouncer to sort the cranberries after the leaves are blown away. “The good berries are solid and they bounce over a little lip,” said Melvin Goodland. “The soft berries fall off the back and go down into bins down at the bottom.”

The Goodlands use a vintage wooden machine called a bouncer to sort the cranberries after the leaves are blown away. “The good berries are solid and they bounce over a little lip,” said Melvin Goodland. “The soft berries fall off the back and go down into bins down at the bottom.”

Prior to building the beds, he spent some time visiting various cranberry operations in Massachusetts and that’s where he purchased most of his harvesting equipment. The Goodlands employ several local men to help harvest and prepare the berries for packaging. For three years, they wet-harvested their cranberries but then changed to the more labour-intensive dry-harvesting method, using several walk-behind machines.

Wet-harvesting involves flooding the fields, using water reels to remove the fruit from the vines, and then corralling the berries prior to removal. Goodland refers to wet-harvested cranberries as “wet fruit” and dry-harvested cranberries as “fresh fruit.”

“We found that the fresh fruit had more value than the wet fruit,” he said, explaining that wet fruit is sold to processors for use in juices, sauces, and other prepared foods, while the dry fruit is either dried or sold fresh off the vine. For the past few years, their berries have been sold as fresh fruit under the Sun Valley brand, owned by the Bezanson and Chase Cranberry Company in Aylesford, N.S. The Goodlands also sell their fresh and “sweet and dried” cranberries at local farmers’ markets under their own Coastal Cranberries brand.

Goodland said that during the past decade or so, he’s learned a lot, including some of the many fallacies about growing cranberries. “They don’t really like water,” he said. “They prefer sandy soil.”

And while many food growers took a big hit earlier this year when widespread heavy frost killed large tracts of early growing plants, Coastal Cranberries was able to avoid that catastrophe. In addition to an irrigation system, a few years ago the Goodlands installed a crop monitoring system. Both systems have proven valuable.

“They’ve saved us a lot of work and heartache, that’s for sure,” said Goodland. “When the temperature goes down, the electronic monitors call us and the irrigation system will kick in to spray the vines with water, protecting them from frost damage. It sure beats having to check the beds in the middle of the night.”

SEASONAL MAINTENANCE

He added that cranberries have a two-year cycle. The buds for next year’s crop are currently on the plants and must be protected both from frost and winter damage. Goodland noted that typically about every four to five years a layer of one-half to one inch of sand is added to the cranberry vines. “In the late fall, we put on a flood in the beds and it freezes over the winter,” he said. “We add the sand and when it melts, it drifts down onto the vines and it stimulates new vine growth.”

Throughout the summer, the short cranberry vines are weeded using a mechanical roller system, and close attention is also paid to pest control. Goodland noted that very strict regulations govern what types of pesticides can be used on cranberry beds.

“We had a problem this year with an infestation of Cranberry weevils in one of the Ben Lear (cranberry variety) beds, but we managed to get it under control,” he said. “We’ll have a severe decrease in the harvest for that bed this year though.”

And while the bugs may try hard to eat away at his crops, Goodland says he’s been happy to have the assistance of other wildlife in keeping rodents in check.

“For the past couple years, we’ve had two families of foxes on the place, as well as a hawk, that have been making short work of the mice in the beds,” he said. “When I’ve been weeding the beds during the summer, one of the foxes would stay right beside me all day. She’d walk along and snatch the mice. And when she would gather up a bunch, she’d head off to the den to feed her little ones. Then she would be right back by my side to do it all again. She wasn’t scared of me at all.”

WET FALL A CHALLENGE

The lack of rain may have helped produce a good crop yield this year, but the frequent rains during the early fall played havoc with the harvest.

“The berries have to be dry for us to use the harvesters,” said Goodland. “This year, the vines are loaded and the berries are as red as they’ll ever get. We usually expect about 15,000 to 20,000 pounds yield per acre, but this year with the Stevens (variety) berries, we’re probably looking at up to 30,000 pounds per acre. The beds are right full.”

Most years, Goodland, his son, and several employees are also kept busy travelling to various areas to carry out dry-harvesting for other cranberry growers.

“We’ve been all across the Maritimes, to Newfoundland and Quebec, so this time of the year is always very busy for us,” said Goodland.

He said he enjoys growing his cranberries, but admitted the biggest challenge for all cranberry growers during the past decade has been the fluctuating price.

“The price went way down to below cost of production for several years … and as a result we have lost some cranberry farms,” said Goodland. “They claim there’s been an oversupply, but there wasn’t. The oversupply was actually in the juice concentrate and there was not enough whole berries to make the sweet and dried berries and sauces. There were no fresh cranberries available in the marketplace and yet they were saying there was an oversupply. But at least the demand has increased again and the price has gone back up over last year. That makes it all worthwhile.”