May 2, 2013Edgewood Bogs sustains success in cranberries
Taking a lean and green approach in operating Edgewood Bogs has paid dividends for cranberry growers Matt and Cindy Rhodes.
The couple purchased the operation, in the heart of southeastern Massachusetts’ “Cranberry Country,” from Matt’s cousin in 2005. The operation, which has been in the same family for 70 years, will continue into a fourth generation as the Rhodes’ sons, James, Patrick and David, become involved full-time.
At the time of the purchase, the business had 400 acres, about 160 of which were in a more urbanized area north of the farm’s central operation in Carver, Mass.
They decided to be more efficient instead of becoming big. They looked at selling (the northern property) off, paying down debt and re-investing in the existing operation, said Matt, who recalled the nearly four-year process of selling the land, which is being turned into a wetlands reserve project.
They used the proceeds from the sale to renovate by planting hybrid cranberry varieties and restructuring the bogs into shapes that were more efficient to manage. A major theme throughout the effort was conserving vital natural resources.
Consolidating and reconfiguring the bogs and planting hybrids in place of the existing native varieties effectively doubled their per-acre production, Matt said.
“We haven’t completed the process, being that we’re about two-thirds of the way, but we’ve made the bogs more rectangular and uniform to make it much easier for us to cultivate,” he said. “We’ve doubled the production on the existing acreage of about 200 acres.
“We took a three-pronged approach in determining how our generation was going to move the company forward. One, was to be more efficient and productive. Two, was identifying what responsibility we had for the environment and looking at alternative energy sources. And three, looking at how do we start to market our fruit and make the company more self-sufficient.”
Because money was short and cranberry prices were down at the time the Rhodes’ took over, they took advantage of program funding and engineering services offered through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Central to that effort was using technical and financial assistance that came from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary program that helps agricultural producers and forest-land owners improve and protect soil, water, air, plants and wildlife habitat.
“In the field approach, we became extremely efficient with our production, irrigation systems and water use,” Matt said.
The operators pursued state-of-the-art spacing on sprinkler heads, using pop-up sprinklers, and automating with new pumps while installing a tailwater recovery system – the first such installment in Massachusetts.
Tailwater recovery enabled Edgewood to capture and re-use its irrigation water.
“Water conservation was a big focus,” he said. “Because of the reliance in the cranberry industry on the use of water, we’re regulated and permitted in terms of how much we use. (USDA’s) technical assistance was invaluable to us in enhancing our sprinkler system.”
He said the farm was better able to trace and control its water use due to computer-operated automation that ran the pumps. The system reduced the amount of time the pumps were required to operate by half.
Water is conserved on frost nights, when sprinklers run to warm up the bogs. The system can be programmed to shut itself on and off, instead of the growers just turning the pump on at night when it’s cold, then waiting until the next morning to shut it off.
“Once the pumps are run and the spray warms up the fields, the pump shuts off until it gets cold enough again, instead of leaving the pump on all night. We’re conserving not only energy but the diesel fuel and the amount of water we use.”
Edgewood’s bogs are laser leveled to reduce water use. Not as much water is needed to flood a bog at harvest.
“Instead of needing 3 feet of water, now we do it with a foot and a half of water,” he said. “It’s reduced the amount of energy needed on the bogs and to flood the bogs. We’re pretty much creating a closed system in which we can re-use our own water.”
The work that was done to make the bogs straighter and more uniform, eliminating access “cornering,” gave the dry harvester better access.
Edgewood’s owners also installed a two-phased solar energy project that is being used in a maintenance facility, as well as in a sustainable facility to process and package its Cape Cod Select retail brand. The facilities rely on solar power for all of their energy needs, he said.
“When we installed the first phase of solar, people said we were doing it because of the access to grant money,” Matt said. “Yes, we were inspired by that, but also because we realized as farmers we were taking resources out of the environment in order to raise cranberries. Whether it be in our production, fertilization or use of diesel fuel, we felt we had to create a carbon footprint that gives something back.”
After the solar additions were made to the maintenance facility, a processing plant was developed using some of the initial building’s performance results to qualify for verified use of the power supply going forward.
“Once we generated the electricity receipts, we could qualify for more incentives,” Matt noted.
The solar system could reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 660,000 pounds over its lifetime.
Edgewood Bogs is able to quantify its sustainability efforts through participation in GlobalGAP, a certification program that pinpoints food safety as well as environmental responsibility and the health and welfare of employees. Edgewood’s voluntary participation in GlobalGAP, its gold status from Nature’s Choice certification and involvement in becoming LEAF (Linking Environment And Farm) certified are key aspects of the business’ sustainability effort.
Cranberries can be either dry harvested or wet harvested. In wet harvesting, the bogs are flooded. The floating cranberries are retrieved with booms, which are then lifted by conveyor or pumped into a truck to take them to the receiving station for cleaning. Wet harvested cranberries are used for juices, sauces, sweetened dried cranberries or other processed foods.
Dry harvesting uses walk-behind machines to comb the berries off the vines into burlap bags. Berries are then removed from the bogs by bog vehicles or helicopters. Dry harvested cranberries are used to supply the fresh market. Those cranberries are most often used for cooking and baking.
“About a third of our production is dry and two-thirds wet,” Matt said. “For fresh, we use Howes, and processed we use primarily hybrid Stevens (varieties).”
Cindy Rhodes said they wanted to branch out into retail sales from the beginning, but held off until 2009. They’ve since introduced Cape Cod Select, which packages and sells Edgewood’s fresh and frozen fruit domestically and internationally.
Due to Cindy’s involvement in running that aspect of the business, Cape Cod has obtained certification as a majority woman-owned company from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).
“We hope to be nationwide by June,” she said. “We always had a vision of coming up with this type of venture for the business. Outside of Thanksgiving time, you couldn’t find cranberries in the stores here, and we’re the cranberry capital. Now it’s grown tremendously, and in a little over three years we’ve tripled sales and are working with 500 retailers.
“We’re growing all the time,” she reported. “Everybody who sees the product, loves the product. A big part of it is still educating the consumers on the health benefits of cranberries.”
Two new Cape Cod Select products, Cranberries Plus-Blueberries and Cranberries Plus-Apples, were recently introduced.
Rhodes said she is shipping frozen retail products to Mexico, and fresh offerings are being sold in other markets, including the United Kingdom.
Massachusetts produces 27 percent of the U.S. cranberry crop, making it the second highest cranberry producing state after Wisconsin. About 5 percent of Massachusetts cranberries are sold fresh, and the rest are used in processed products.
According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Massachusetts cranberry production in 2012 totaled 2.1 million barrels, 8 percent less than the previous year’s production level, but above the five-year average.
Matt said he has concerns about current market conditions.
“I think the industry right now is in a severe surplus mode, and prices are crashing,” he said. “Back in 2007, there was a demand call made for growers to plant more acreage. That call was met with new varieties and more acreage. Now we’re starting to see the surplus of fruit coming into the marketplace, and commodity prices are starting to have an effect on growers.
“That’s another reason we decided to work to establish our own retail market,” he said. “It gives us another alternative. A retail brand of frozen gives us another option as well, to stay away from commodity pricing.”
He said Massachusetts would remain different from other leading cranberry producing areas due to its urban nature, higher price of land and wetland regulations.
“The uplands are too expensive to expand into because of the value of housing and other things in Massachusetts, so the production increases will stay pretty flat other than when people are rebuilding and taking out wild and planting hybrids. It’s maxing out the area.”
Wisconsin “has the ability to develop bogs in uplands that don’t have the same land values as Massachusetts. It’s the same in eastern Canada,” Matt said.
“That’s where we’re seeing most of the production come from, Wisconsin and Canada. Massachusetts will be at a pretty steady volume from here on in.”