Story and Photos By Christine Becker.
It’s September, and summer’s crescendo of bright sunshine dancing on vine-tethered tomatoes descends into a hushed tempo. Like a velvety adagio molto, autumn is calling. As the leaves break from their branches—twirling with carefree jollity like a whisk in a bowl of batter—another harvest is preparing to unveil itself. The New England soil, acidic but nutrient-dense, is ready to bring forth its native super fruit—the cranberry.
With its Rosso Corsa shell and a hardy, white interior full of pectin (a helpful aid for constructing tarts), the cranberry makes for a stunning addition to any baked good or winter salad. It is also rich in antioxidants and Vitamin C. While the heritage crop has been tiresomely restricted to jellied cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving or cranberry juice tonics to prevent UTIs, it also offers a broad spectrum of culinary possibilities. Reassuring me of this claim is Skid Whipple, a 50+ year legacy cranberry farmer who leads the bog reconstruction efforts at Forges Cranberries. “The cranberry is a versatile fruit. You can integrate them into recipes where you want to add a bright flavor. For sandwiches, you can whip up raw cranberries and mayo in a blender for a nice tart spread. And during the harvest season, there’s nothing quite as delicious as a stack of fresh cranberry pancakes bathed in salted butter and heaps of warm maple syrup. It’s a flavor explosion. Everyone should try it.”
Setting the Scene
Forges Cranberries, a 32-acre independent farm with three bogs located on the South Shore in Plymouth County, was engineered by a family of cranberry aficionados with a vision to educate Southeastern Massachusetts on the value of the superfood berry. The farmland, purchased by their great-grandfather in the 19th century, is a small portion of a multi-thousand acreage tract of land known as Chiltonville. One of the original bogs, cultivated around 1890, became the site of each year’s crowning achievement: the harvest loading party. Trucks would pack in barrels of fruit, and family and locals celebrated the yield, enjoying fellowship, food, and wine. This tradition continued for decades and included all of Skid’s six children and grandchildren.
After years of the land lying dormant, covered by a carpet of wild weeds, Skid and his cousin Ellis Withington, a Director of the nonprofit Forges Foundation, have linked arms to preserve their historical property by resurrecting the land to her former agricultural glory. While Nathan and Michael Withington, also Directors at Forges Foundation, did not participate in the interview, they have been critical to the project. Two years ago, the bogs, which are low-lying wetlands, underwent an extensive reconstruction process. This included leveling the property, installing an environmentally-friendly sprinkler system to reduce local water usage, and replanting hardier varietal vines that can sustain consumer demand for decades to come.
Visiting the Bogs
It was a hot morning when I embarked on my journey to Forges Cranberries for our 10:00 am interview. Driving down a windy road flanked by two ponds, with a GPS teetering between in-service and offline, I cracked my windows to drink in a sea-soaked breeze from the neighboring coast. I noticed the “Forges Cranberries” sign emerging in the distance. As I turned onto a dirt path lined with a canopy of trees, it was easy to discern that this property had a story.
With rubber boots on my feet and a voice recorder in hand, I followed Skid and Ellis step-by-step as they led me down into their original bog, replanted last year for the first time in 100 years. The sea of red vines called runners has been growing for the past two months as a groundcover to prevent weeds. Skid began to point out berries on the plants. “See, these were planted last year. They’re one year old. See all the crop on it, that’s a good sign. This means they’ve taken to the ground and have matured well. It’s all going according to plan. There are more berries than we were expecting,” he said. “How tall do they grow?” I asked. “Not much higher, because once they get to about here, they start laying over,” Skid answered as he pointed to his mid-calf.
Q: “For those who are unaware of the history of the cranberry (including myself ), can you share a bit of what you know?”
A: Skid- “Sure. We know the Indigenous Americans knew a lot about the medicinal value of cranberries and taught the Pilgrims how to consume them. Additionally, the sea trade, and specifically the whaling industry, was big in New England. Fishermen were always looking for something with vitamin C to stop scurvy. Limes had to be juiced because they wouldn’t keep. But cranberries could remain in the ship’s hull as a whole fruit—their high pectin and low sugar content allowed them to survive up to six months in temperatures ranging from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, common for the Atlantic Ocean. The barrel, a measurement of cranberries, derives from this usage since 100 pounds of berries fit into a standard barrel. Once the whalers consumed the fruit, the same barrels were used to hold the whaling oil. Cranberries originally developed in Cape Cod and migrated north, growing here and then moving westward.”
As we transitioned to a different part of the property, Skid and Ellis, with nostalgic grins and in back-and-forth playfulness, began to recount childhood memories of the property. In winter, the ice-sheathed bog became a hockey rink for friendly matches, while in late summer, the ditches invited adventurous expeditions of frog hunting. Harvest surpluses filled their bellies with cranberry bread and fresh cranberry sauce (made with orange rind and lemon peel). I learned that their great-grandfather was a prominent attorney and gentleman farmer who purchased the land as a hunting lodge. According to them, he pastured horses and prize cattle along with a trout hatchery before it became farmland in the late 1800s. Chiltonville blossomed into a self-sustaining, community-serving property with herds of dairy cows, bushels of sweet corn, and cranberry bogs.
Q: “In terms of harvesting the crop, can you walk me through what the process looks like?”
A: Skid- “Because the cranberry vine is a perennial, it will be harvested every year between September and October for the rest of its life. Considering these bogs are still new, and it is only their second year, we will allow the berries to rot and then clean them off. The bogs will be officially ready to harvest next year. And in this bog alone, my goal would be to produce 200 barrels per acre, nothing more than that. It would be too much for the vines to handle.”
A: Ellis- “Our cranberries are grown for processing in juices or canned items, so we use the wet harvesting technique, which requires flooding the bogs. The vine tips remain just under the water line. A machine knocks the berries off the vine, and once they float to the surface, you add more water and allow the wind to blow them down to one corner. We also use a cranberry boom
to drive the berries to a collection point before they’re drawn into a food-handling pump. This process is known as corralling. As the berries are pumped up into a separator unit on the top, the water and debris are recycled back into the bog while the berries roll into a truck.”
A: Skid- “When harvest season begins, we start at 7:00 am and continue until the evening. The mornings are cold with a fog set over the bogs, and by noon, you’re roasting. I started water harvesting in 1970, which was new back then. Harvesting is a three-stage operation: The first is using the picker, which is a water harvesting tool. The next is flooding and corralling with a couple of people. The last is when the loading crew shows up. Cranberries sold as fresh fruit uses a more labor-intensive, dry harvesting technique that allows them to sit for months. Water would cause them to rot.”
Q: “Can you share with the readers what you’re hoping to accomplish by preserving these bogs?”
A: Skid- “In my view, by building this farm and getting it back up into production, we’re creating a sustainable economic model for operation; we’re also saving the cranberries that are here for future generations. Massachusetts is where cranberries began. And by having this farming practice continue, it creates a legacy for everyone in the Commonwealth, in the country, and the world. This is not just my legacy—this is an art form that’s becoming forgotten. We want to educate people on how to cultivate bogs so it will continue. We cannot lose cranberry farming in the place it originally began. And while it’s a small crop in the scheme of growing produce in the United States, it’s something that everyone knows about—cranberry sauces, the Cape Codder cocktail, and Craisins®—the good stuff. Cranberries are by far the largest value crop of all Massachusetts.”
A: Ellis- “From the perspective of Forges Foundation, we were protecting this property from growing fallow or being used for housing and development. We either had to come to rescue it or let it go to someone else. We wanted to preserve it. Skid is a world expert regarding cranberry bogs—he told us what to do, and that’s what we’ve been doing.
“All of us, growing up, playing down here, by the sandbank, the hay barns. When it was a farm, it was incredible for kids growing up. We want to preserve that history and teach people in the community how to cultivate and appreciate cranberry farming through education. Forges Cranberries is here to benefit the community, not to make money.”
Skid and Ellis pointed out the deer tracks stamped throughout the bog, followed by the osprey and eagle nests settled on treetops surrounding the property. While the birds hunt for frogs and fish inhabiting the ditches, the deer and the occasional geese prefer the ripened crop. This once-upon-a-dream-realized project is cultivating and nourishing a rich bio-diverse environment.
Q: “This is a very nuanced question—but when you think about the cranberry, what does it symbolize to you?”
A: Skid- “Local, native fruit. My whole life. A way of life.”
Q: “Let’s say you’re into next year during harvest season and the education program is underway. If there is a group of school kids here, what would they learn?”
A: Skid- “If they’re here during the growing season, I’ll teach them all the same things I showed you today. Children don’t need to come out of it growing cranberries but gaining an understanding of what plants are and the difference between perennials and annuals is very important. I’d emphasize cultural and environmental practices that save pollinators like bumblebees and honeybees and conserve water by volume. On the farm, we don’t use electricity. We only use pumps for irrigation when I can’t manipulate the water table and for frost protection.
About harvest time Skid says, “Harvest is one of the most fun things to partake in—you put on a pair of waders and get out on the water—it’s a whole new world! We mark the bridges and everything for harvest. With water below the knee, and the harvested crop ready—children love it.”
A: Ellis- “It’s so much better than the classroom. The farm is a great spot to come and learn about how the cranberries they eat are grown. Also, I’ll add that many components of the education plan were contingent on building a pavilion, which we were all set to go before COVID hit. It’s now a matter of availability to get workers to come in and build the steel structure. Next year once we start producing, the apprenticeship and educational components will be more appropriate.”
A: Skid- “Schools weren’t sure what direction they were heading in, so we halted the educational component and have been waiting.”
Q: “In considering the future of Forges Cranberries, would you be interested in offering apprenticeships for young, aspiring farmers with a passion for the crop, or perhaps providing farm volunteer opportunities?”
A: Ellis- “We hope to develop an interest in bog cultivation and farming, so others might work on bogs, including this one, before Skid is ready to retire. We still have some time in the strategic process of considering the next steps.”
A: Skid- “Definitely. The more, the merrier! There is only a certain percentage of the population that is going to take to it. I would want to see this farm up and running before I ever considered transitioning—I would be interested in training aspiring farmers in the future. And regarding events, we are discussing volunteer opportunities for next year’s harvest.”
[According to a 2021 article published in Fruit Growers News titled: Massachusetts cranberry growers forecast an average crop this season, cranberries are the largest agricultural food commodity produced in Massachusetts, with an annual crop value of $60.2 million.]
Share in the Vision
Forges Cranberries invites you to share in their vision to anchor the community, both young and old, by growing in an understanding of one of New England’s gastronomical and cultural icons—the cranberry. Stay tuned as they develop their upcoming education center for community engagement. Who knows? Maybe a rekindling of harvest parties feasting over fellowship, food, and wine will also result from this family’s story.
173 Old Sandwich Road
Plymouth, MA 02630
A special thanks to Jim Halunen, an ardent supporter and reader of edible Southeastern Massachusetts for pitching this story idea. Do you have an article idea? Let us know.
Christine Becker is a food systems consultant and writer residing in a 1700s cottage in Scituate, MA. She’s fallen in love with all-things-New England, including sailing, oysters, and freshly-baked cranberry tarts!