WAREHAM, MASS. -- For the last 150 years, give or take a few, the Makepeace family has mucked a living from the sandy soil near Cape Cod, so on this cool October day Christopher Makepeace followed ritual: He went down to the bogs to once more watch the red gold roll in.
Christopher Makepeace is a cranberry grower. The world's largest cranberry grower, in fact, with 1,400 acres of low-lying bogs that produce the tart fruit that goes into the juices and relishes that adorn the shelves of most American grocery stores.
Harvest was under way in this 28-acre bog, flooded to the depth of a man's knee. Brilliantly red cranberries had been gentled from their vines by a shaker machine, floated to the surface and then quickly corraled and guided to shore by a work crew manipulating long wooden booms.
A huge vacuum machine sucked the berries from the water, sent them up a conveyor belt and into a waiting semitrailer that would hustle them down the road to a receiving station operated by Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., a wildly successful farmers' cooperative that has climbed to Fortune 500 status.
Although the crop seemed abundant in this bog, looks were deceiving. "We had our best year ever last year," Makepeace said, "but this will be an off-year. It was dry in July and August and the crop suffered. The water is vital."
Now, when one thinks agriculture, the cranberry may be one of the last commodities to come to mind. Because it requires boggy, low-lying soil with a heavy clay base, it is grown commercially only in Massachusetts and four other states. And of course, the cranberry isn't high visibility -- not your everyday staple.
But while their grain-growing counterparts elsewhere have reeled from one economic punch after another over the last five years, the obscure cranberry farmers have been doing just fine.
Moreover, they are doing well without a hint of federal assistance. Cranberry growing may be the quintessential example of an agricultural free market at work, with demand just enough ahead of supply to make farmers happy, and with the growers' own Ocean Spray cooperative assuring an adequate price for the raw product.
Unlike the grain farmer, the cranberry growers get no federal crop subsidies and their fruit has no federal price supports. Federal marketing orders do not allocate market shares or limit new growers, as occurs with some other crops. No surplus jams the warehouses; supply barely keeps pace with demand. And Ocean Spray, owned by 600 cranberry and 140 grapefruit growers, keeps profits up by pushing out new juice and relish mixes.
Although national acreage planted to cranberries has remained constant at less than 25,000 acres for 15 years, per-acre yields and prices have risen steadily and many farmers can figure on a remarkable gross of $10,000 per acre in a good season.
"It's a very stable industry: Every berry that is grown is used," said Jere D. Downing, Ocean Spray's horticultural director at nearby Plymouth. "All the pieces fit together. We're trying to match business development with available crops. As the crop gets bigger we can add new business outlets."
Yet not all is well in the bogs.
As urban development crowds in around the growing areas just an hour south of Boston and as public concern grows over pesticide pollution of groundwater, the industry is under unaccustomed pressures. And expansion into new bogs is limited because federal agencies refuse to allow disruption of wetlands, which the bogs are by definition.
Pushed and cajoled by the state government and lured by the prospect of cutting their costs, many growers are reducing their pesticide expenses through integrated pest management (IPM) techniques that require sophisticated oversight.
"We want to cut the industry's chemical use 75 percent by 1991," said August (Gus) Schumacher Jr., state commissioner of food and agriculture. "We are getting private industry and the state university involved in helping the growers find alternatives . . . and a number of these farmers, on their own, have made major reductions in chemical use through IPM practices."
Doug Beaton, president of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association and, like Makepeace, a fourth-generation grower, agreed with Schumacher, adding that less pesticide use is in the industry's best interest.
"This is where we make our living. This is our spot. A lot of us live on our bogs, so it behooves us to be careful," Beaton said. "Chemicals have been a part of our success, but we also are better farmers, and a key concern for all of us is our clean water."
This sensitivity stems in part from the 1959 chemical scare that sent the industry into a major tailspin. Just before Thanksgiving that year, the federal government announced that a small part of the crop had been tainted by a cancer-causing weed killer. Consumers turned their backs on cranberries; tons of the fruit were destroyed, and farmers abandoned thousands of acres of bogs.
The industry rebounded as Ocean Spray moved more heavily into juices, but now faces new pressures from the urban expansion into bogs around Cape Cod, where about 450 growers produce half the U.S. crop.
"As people come in closer toward where we farm, we're getting asked more and more questions," Downing said. "There's very little understanding outside of the cranberry world how this fruit is grown."
And as the world draws closer, real estate developers come knocking on growers' doors every day with alluring offers for their land. Farmers like Beaton and Makepeace aren't interested.
"It's a life style, and people just can't understand when we say we don't want to sell," Makepeace said.
Beaton added: "We may have a large co-op working for us, but we're still small farmers and we've learned to be independent -- we even custom-build a lot of our own equipment. It gives us pleasure to know we're working with a crop that has a historical image that goes back to the Pilgrims."