In the past seven years, Brooks Holmes (above), of Jonesboro, and nearly a score of other Washington County residents have taken up the imposing task of building and cultivating cranberry bogs. All anticipate eventually making a good deal of money, even if it takes them five to eight years to see any of it.
The rolling emptiness of Washington County’s interior seems an unlikely place to strike agricultural gold. True, the blueberry industry is a financial kingpin in Maine’s easternmost county, but cultivating blueberry barrens has been going on for generations. Starting a new crop in such rough, remote terrain is at least a daunting prospect.
Maine’s new cranberry farmers may be onto something, though. Raising cranberries is an expanding business nationwide due to the fruit’s healthful benefits, which are both legendary and now well-documented. In a 1994 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Harvard Medical School researchers documented what many had believed was only folklore — that cranberry consumption can indeed significantly reduce the risk of bladder infections, a medical problem that accounts for 7 million doctors’ office visits, and more than 1 million hospital admissions in the United States every year.
Wet-harvest cranberries are a tricky business — they’re picked when bogs are flooded and must be frozen within a few days to prevent rot. Despite hopes in the ’90, they’ve yet to take off in Maine. After a few good years, the cranberry market crashed several times for a number of reasons — pests, competition from Canada, strict wetlands regulations. Today, some 20 Maine growers are cultivating just a little over 100 acres. Brooks Holmes, Maine’s cranberry pioneer, is now 78 and lives in Calais, where he consults for a grower of blueberries, evergreens, and yes, cranberries.