Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interview with David Cottrell, cranberry farmer in Greyland, WA.

During my travels in Oregon and Washington, I got the pleasure to stay a few nights with David, a cranberry farmer living outside of Greyland. During these two days David opened up his farm to us and gave us an insight in his work, himself and the society he grew up in. I remember those days with a smile on my lips, and I will never drink cranberry juice again without recalling the Friday night we spent driving his home made railroad over the cranberry bog.

I wanted to share some of what David told me during these days, so here is an interview ( I know it's long, but I didn't want to cut something out, so please hang in there!), just for you!

David, how come you're a cranberry farmer?
My grandfather started growing cranberries about 1940. When he died, my father took over the farm and expanded it. I grew up working on the farm every day, until I went off to college. Even then I came back to help at harvest (sometimes skipping classes if necessary). In my 20‘s I traveled a lot and saw a lot of the world, lots wonderful things and people, but I found that I missed the cranberries and the community that goes with them, and I discovered that some of the happiest people I met were people with roots. So 27 years ago I came back to cranberry farming in partnership with my brother, and I have been here ever since.

How's life on a cranberry farm?
Life on the farm revolves around the weather. Cranberries are a wetland plant. They need lots of water, and, like most plants, they need sun. We live on the edge of a rainforest which gives us a mix of both.

When the weather is nice, there are 100 things to be done: weeds to pull, sprinklers and thermostats to check (we use them for frost protection as well as irrigation), water levels to monitor, areas to fertilize, areas to replant, ditches to clean, wood to cut, grass to mow, more weeds to pull....the list never ends, but it changes from season to season.

In the course of a week we will walk over most of our land as we go about our different projects, so we know every foot of our cranberry bogs as gardeners would know their gardens. It’s very personal, which is how growing food should be (in my opinion.)

When the weather is rainy, there are always projects in the sheds and shops to keep us busy, repairing buildings and equipment or building new things. During the winter when it is cold and stormy and the cranberries are sleeping, my brother and I can take turns tending the farm while the other one travels to interesting places.

Please tell me about harvest, it seems like such an event!
Our cranberry harvest starts about September 20 and goes into November. It’s the most exciting time of the year. Everything we’ve done all year long has been building to this one event. Often our cousins and friends come to help us bring in the crop and celebrate.

We pick the cranberries with a small machine called a Furford Picker, invented by a local man about 50 years ago. It is powered by a small motor, and you walk behind it like an old style plow as it runs its fingers through the vines, like a comb through hair, picking off the berries as it goes.

The picking machine drops the berries into burlap sacks which are left behind it in the field. Then somebody carries them over to the small railroad track that runs through the field and stacks them on the cart, which takes the sacks into the warehouse. There they’re cleaned, graded and sent off to the cannery to be made into cranberry juice, sauce, craisins, or packaged as fresh fruit.

When the weather is good and the berries are ripe we’ll pick until the last rays of sunlight have faded, and then we’ll pick up the hundreds of sacks of berries that are still left in the field by the light of the moon. Those days are magic!

On the other hand, by November the days are short and it’s often cold and raining sideways. Then it’s a race with Winter to get the berries in before it floods and they float away, or it freezes and they’re ruined. Those are hard days, but the finish line is in sight, and that is its own kind of fun!

I think anybody who has ever raised a garden knows this joy, but when it’s been a part of your whole life, and your father’s, and your grandfather’s before him, it takes on even greater depth.

Me, getting to drive the cranberry railroad!
What do you like to do with the cranberries?
Do you mean eating them, or other things, like juggling them?

I eat many of them fresh and raw, or add them to things when cooking. I also make cranberry juice by boiling them with a little sugar and pressing them, then sweetening the left-over pulp to make a sauce. My mom, who is 80, has many more advanced recipes, but I’m a simple cook.

As for other things, many people string cranberries for Christmas decorations. Also, did you know that cranberries are one of the few fruits that bounce? If you want a challenge some time, try playing ping pong with a cranberry. It works! Just think, you could never do this with a strawberry, a banana, a pineapple, or a melon!

How does the coop Ocean Spray work?

The Ocean Spray co-op is made up of cranberry growers of all different sizes from all over the USA and Canada. If you are a member of the co-op you promise to send all your cranberries to Ocean Spray, and in return the co-op promises to guarantee a market for everything you grow. Then as the profits come into the co-op over the next year, the money is divided equally among the cranberry growers proportional to the amount of cranberries they shipped.

It is a very fair system which prevents the big farmers from competing against the little family farmers and slowly forcing them out of business, as has happened to so many other small farmers. Instead we are all working together to sell the best product we can, and then we all share in the value.

Although it has grown into a big company, Ocean Spray Cranberries is still run by a board of directors of 11 farmers elected from all the different growing regions of USA and Canada, and one hired manager, so the company is still very much run by farmers for farmers. As a small family farm, we are very lucky this way!

What is the pros and cons with farming the "old school way"?
Well first of all, I don’t know that I can claim to be truly “old school”. Those old guys were tough! They cleared acres of land with nothing but a shovel and a hoe. They pushed their carts through the bogs by the strength of their backs and legs, or had their wives do the pushing, and they picked their berries with their own fingers. I like having a picking machine with a motor and I like having a tractor! If there’s a way I can get more done in a day and have fewer sore back-muscles when I go to bed, I’ll give it a try even if it’s not the way my grandfather would have done it.

But one of the things I like to think I share with the old timers is that I farm according to the economy of nature rather than the economy of money. The “modern farmers” I know seem to worry a lot about profits and losses, investment and debt, dollars and cents, as if it were just another kind of business investment that you could walk away from.

For us and many of our neighbors though, the commitment is a little greater. Our calculations are mostly about soil and water, sun and rain, the health and sickness of the farm. For those of us who think this way, the farm is a member of the family that you would never sell, unless to pass it on to somebody who can take care of it.

While you have the stewardship of the land you take care of it as best you can, and it will take care of you. For me, that sums up “old school” farming, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

David and George, a breeding stallion he saved from slaughter. 
 Thank you David! I hope everyone got the chance to learn something new, and maybe some of you will share your favourite cranberry recipe?


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