ORLEANS — The Outer Cape has its wild cranberry patches, hidden in the dunes and alongside ponds. But it takes a road trip to Orleans to find a cultivated bog. Standing by an expanse of the deep burgundy-colored dormant vines at Sassamanesh Farm, Craig Boyce says he thinks this post-harvest season is the prettiest time of year to be bogside.
Boyce didn’t grow up a cranberry grower, but he’s learning. He and his wife, Maureen, bought the 1.5-acre bog in 2016 from Jim and Mary Bast of Chatham. The Basts had begun restoring the bog about 10 years earlier, and, Boyce says, there’s still plenty to be done.
In 2018, the Boyces moved from Boston to Orleans to be closer to the project. Craig, who was the managing director at Bain Capital and is now managing partner of the ALS Investment Fund, does not consider himself a full-fledged farmer yet. He’s keeping his day job, but he’s passionate about preserving this Cape Cod tradition.
According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, before descendants of colonizers took to growing them, cranberries had been harvested here by indigeneous people for 12,000 years. “Sassamanesh” is a transliteration of the Wampanoag word for cranberry: sasumuneash.
“Each year it’s been a different adventure,” Boyce says. Though much smaller than industrial growers’ bogs, which can span tens of acres, his produces a few thousand pounds of berries each fall. “More than you’re going to use on your Thanksgiving table,” Boyce says.
This year’s harvest was only about 1,600 pounds. Boyce attributes the small crop to the nor’easter in late October, which knocked berries off the vines.
For the bog’s upkeep, he relies on the expertise of Ray Thacher of Thacher Cranberries in Harwich and bog manager J.P. Vario. Vario and Thacher, whose family has been growing cranberries for 60 years, bring all the equipment needed to tend the plants, including a separating machine and a boom used to gather ripe berries floating on the flooded bog.
Vario grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York but has been farming cranberries since he met Thacher 35 years ago. Vario got to know this particular bog under its previous owners.
A decade ago, Vario’s first step toward rebuilding the bog was to smooth out its floor. It was crisscrossed with ditches that made proper irrigation difficult. He replanted, too, with vines purchased from Makepeace Farms in Wareham.
Each year, Boyce, Thacher, and Vario have been working to thicken the bog to increase productivity. One method is replanting vine clippings so they propagate and grow into new plants. Another is covering runners with sandy peat, to encourage them to sprout shoots. Currently, a pile of sand sits waiting at bog’s edge. Vario will use a quahog rake to rake it over the vines.
“It gets better every year,” said Vario of the bog’s trajectory. Vario sanded the bog this past season and plans to sand it again in the spring. He said that, in addition to helping prompt new growth, sanding protects the buds from tickworm and kills certain grasses that crop up around the plants.
Sassamanesh Farm doesn’t sell to grower collectives like Ocean Spray or Decas Farms, which are two major destinations for many cranberries grown on Cape Cod. Instead, the family has focused on local distribution.
The Boyces’ daughter, Nicole, 15, and son, Dylan, 12, have sold berries at Judy Scanlon’s Lake Farm table at the Orleans Farmers’ Market. They have also donated to food banks, including the Lower Cape Outreach Council in Orleans and St. Vincent de Paul Society in Hyannis.
This fall was the second year Sassamanesh Farm donated cranberries to Scouts BSA troops 83 and 183. Boyce is an assistant scoutmaster of Troop 83, in which Dylan is a scout. Nicole scouts with sister Troop 183. The scouts raised $4,700 from their cranberry sales this year, which will help pay for equipment and activities for their troops.
Come January, Thacher will help Boyce flood the bog. Even if the water freezes, vines will stay protected from cold winds. The Boyces might also break out their skates and use the bog as an ice rink, as they have in past years.
Since their permanent move, Boyce says one pleasure has been watching his children become more directly invested in the landscape of their community. Growing the berries, he says, “you get an increased appreciation for where your food comes from and the effort that farmers put into your food.
“The bog itself has an interesting life cycle that we’ve come to appreciate,” he added. It has strengthened his ties to this place, he says. “It’s our front yard.”
A Garland How-To
A ruby garland for your mantle or tree is easy to make. All you need is ordinary thread, a regular sewing needle, and a bowlful of fresh cranberries. Plain popcorn makes a snow-like accent, too. Popcorn that’s on the staler side won’t crumble as easily — try leaving it out overnight once it’s popped.
1. Cut the thread to desired length. Make it long enough to allow the garland to drape, gently weighted by the berries.
2. Tie the end of your thread into a loop if you’re planning to hang it on a hook. Otherwise, an ordinary knot will do. Add a pinch of tape at the end so the cranberries won’t slip off the end.
3. Get stringin’! Run the needle directly through the center of the cranberry and pull the thread through. For popcorn, string through the thickest part of the kernel so it’s less likely to break.
4. Experiment with different patterns. All cranberry and all popcorn garlands are one approach, or alternate them.
5. Wrap your garlands into pine boughs over your mantle or drape them on your tree.
6. When you’re ready to take it down, toss your garland to the birds (literally). Cranberries are delicious and nutritious for them. Plain popcorn is okay as an occasional snack but fills birds up on fiber and carbs without many vitamins and minerals. Share responsibly.