Think Nantucket, and, most likely, images of windswept seascapes, gray shingled cottages, historic lighthouses, and quintessential New England sailboats come to mind. But the very Cape Cod island people tend to associate with all things maritime also has some interesting agricultural history. It’s home to the once-largest contiguous cranberry bog in the world, and now the largest certified organic cranberry farm in the United States.
Here, we delve into Nantucket’s cranberry-harvesting past and present, plus an inside look at the ultimate way to immerse yourself in the Ocean Spray world: the Nantucket Cranberry Festival on Saturday, October 12th.
Once Upon a Nantucket Cranberry Bog
Native to the northern latitudes of North America, cranberry shrubs were first cultivated in the early 1800s in none other than Cape Cod, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Denis. Centuries prior, the tart red berries had been used for food and dye by Native Americans and the Pilgrims. By the 19th century, cranberries had become quite the delicacy for use in sauces and desserts, and a fledgling Massachusetts housed idyllic wetlands for growing this now-trendy superfood.
Nantucket jumped on the cranberry farming bandwagon in 1857 with the formation of the Milestone Bog in the center of the island. Many more bogs followed, but it was Milestone that soon made history as the largest contiguous cranberry bog on the planet, measuring at a whopping 234 acres.
As cultivation and irrigation techniques improved, Nantucket farmers figured out that bigger isn’t always better. Once ripe, the berries are harvested by flooding the sunken agricultural lands and allowing the berries to float to the water’s surface. Dividing larger bogs into smaller parcels proved far more efficient for collecting the so-called “red rubies.” With this in mind, Nantucket developed dozens of smaller bogs, and soon cranberry production proved a strong contributor to the island’s growing economy.
Nantucket’s Present Day Cran-Culture
In the second half of the 20th century, little Nantucket’s cranberry industry became no match for the commercial production that had emerged in Wisconsin, Quebec, and mainland Massachusetts. In August 2019, it was announced that one of the island’s two remaining cranberry operations, the 37-acre Windswept Cranberry Bog, would cease production and transition back into a natural inland wetland — leaving Milestone as Nantucket’s last bog standing.
Thankfully, under the watchful eye (and ownership) of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Milestone’s current 195-acre, 24-bog cranberry excess (and the two million pounds of berries produced there) is here to stay. To ensure this, Milestone has set itself apart from its commercial competitors by becoming exclusively organic, branding Nantucket Conservation Foundation the largest certified organic cranberry grower in the United States. Additionally, in 2004, the Foundation began an annual, one-day Cranberry Festival to raise awareness about Nantucket’s agricultural heritage. Fast-forward to present day, and this adorable festival, which takes place each year over Columbus Day weekend, is one of the most anticipated events of the fall season.
The 16th Annual Cranberry Festival
The 16th annual Cranberry Festival will be held at Milestone Bog on Saturday, October 12th, 2019, from 11am to 4pm. This dynamic affair takes place at the height of harvest season, meaning the land will be glowing with abundant picture-perfect red rubies. It also means that you can strap on a pair of rubber waders, grab a rake and wade through a bog—just like the guys in the Ocean Spray ads. Visitors can either partake in the harvest by raking the berries on the surface, or simply go in a for a few fun pictures.
But, of course, there’s so much more to this festival than a great Instagram post. Guests can feast on amazing cranberry dishes from local vendors, such as the cranberry pecan bread from Wicked Island Bakery, cranberry pies from Bartlett’s Farm, cranberry fudge from Aunt Leah’s Fudge, and fresh-pressed juice from ACK Fresh. There are also opportunities to learn about traditional versus organic techniques from professional farmers through one-on-one discussions and guided tours. Plus, you can check out the operational, antique berry bouncing machine (as it sifts berries) and browse a very cool collection of antique tractors.
Children are sure to love the hayrides along the bog as well as other kid-friendly happenings, including a petting zoo, face-painting, sack races, and meet-and-greets with some of the fluffy sheep living at Milestone (who are supervised by the resident Border Collie, Rem). Meanwhile, adults will appreciate the live music, you-pick areas (for taking a few pounds of the good stuff home), harvesting demos, and self-guided walking trails through the bog and surrounding autumn scenery. This off-the-wall themed festival is a great way to immerse yourself in all things cranberries — with the exception of a vodka cranberry cocktail in hand.
Featured Photo: J. Greg Hinson