Salt of the Earth: Tom Larabee and Windswept organic cranberries

November 18, 2007

Tuesday at dusk, the Windswept cranberry bog on Polpis Road was barren. A solitary cranberry hung shining from a vine in the gold light of the fading afternoon. A rooster call and the shotgun blasts of deer hunters in the nearby moors were the only sounds.

But during a recent one-week harvest of the bog, the colors were different there. Because Windswept is a certified organic bog, the cranberries are not the vibrant red of the Milestone bog, more of a dark maroon.

Both bogs are owned and operated by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, the revenue from each used to maintain the bogs and purchase open space.

This year, the Windswept bog’s cranberry output increased three-fold, bog manager Tom Larrabee said, from 100 barrels last year to 300 this year.

For Larrabee and his son Tom, the assistant bog manager, the technique for working an organic bog is entirely different than the larger bogs on Milestone Road.

“You can’t control insects anywhere near as well,” Larrabee said.

That’s because only organic-certified sprays are allowed on an organic bog.

In fact, the Conservation Foundation had to prove that it hadn’t used any non-organic pesticides on the bog for three years prior to the bog receiving its certification from Baystate Organic Certifiers, a Winchendon-based, U.S. Department of Agriculture-accredited certifying agent that certifies operations in the Northeast.

That was easy, said Foundation director of finance and administration Tom Lennon. The bog had lay dormant since Northland Cranberries Inc. vacated the property in 2000.

Windswept received its organic certification form Baystate last year. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, there are less than a dozen organic cranberry-growers in Massachusetts.

In place of pesticides, praying mantises and other carnivorous insects thrive, while protecting the crop. The Larrabees also hold the water in the Windswept bog until May to keep insects away, which results in a smaller yield. But a slightly smaller crop is better than the result of an insect attack, the Larrabees said.

“It’s a lot of hard work, really,” Lennon said. The work pays off though, as the organic berries fetch $100 per barrel, as opposed to the $30 the Milestone bog gets per barrel.

“There’s not many people that grow organic,” Lennon said. “It blends in well with the mission of the foundation.”

Tom Larrabee came to work for his father two years ago after moving his family to Massachusetts from South Carolina, where he’d owned his own garage and worked as a mechanic. He’s being trained to take over for his father, who turned 70 in October.

The Larrabees hope Windswept’s cranberry output will continue to increase next year, but they won’t know for sure until spring, they said. That’s when, along with flowers and the leaves on the birch trees to the east, buds sprout on the cranberry plants.



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