In near-total darkness, two points of light illuminate a large white transport truck, as the chuffing sound of a conveyor belt breaks the surrounding nighttime quiet.
They’re harvesting at Cape Blanco Cranberries, just north of Port Orford.
Two men have been out in the flooded cranberry bed since 4:30 a.m. The bed is under water, up to their knees, from when the floodgates were opened at the terraced bed just above, harvested days before.
The berries have floated to the top, after being gently persuaded to let go of their vines by a harrow specially designed for cranberries that’s attached to a tractor. The harrow is gentler than the beaters used in some cranberry fields.
The transport truck is parked on the downwind side of the pond, because the wind helps to gather the cranberries since they float once they have come loose.
The berries are rounded up using a series of hinged, handmade wooden booms arranged in a loop that lassoes the berries. The L-shaped booms are designed to float on the water, while providing an edge to gently push the berries toward the conveyer belt.
A man in waders wields a hand-pushed boom on the water, like one would use a push broom, to guide them more quickly to the conveyor belt. He then tightens the circle of booms to keep the berries in a tight formation.
A second man keeps track of loading the berries into the truck, moving the vehicle back as needed. The rest of the time, he’s shoveling the leaves that have dropped by using a funny-shaped leaf rake.
Cranberries drop about 20% of their leaves each year, but they keep the remainder of their leaves year-round. The discarded leaves are removed to maintain the health of the field.
Once the first truck of the day was filled, it headed to the company’s processing plant, just south of Bandon. The berries there are sanitized with a water, hydrogen peroxide and vinegar solution; color sorted by machine; dried; then rolled onto an inspection table for hand sorting before being packaged in 12-oz. plastic clamshells and refrigerated.
The procedure from field to shipment all happens within a day.
Ron and Mary Puhl, owners Cape Blanco Cranberries, have been in the business since 1990, when they began building their farm. When the pair moved here shortly after getting married, they wanted to stay and were hunting for ways to make a living.
Ron started out as a commercial fisherman. For a while, the couple ran sheep on a portion of their property.
“We realized that this property, which had been in my family for a long time, was basically being unused,” Mary Puhl said. “It was covered in gorse and brush, but it was the right type of soil for growing cranberries.”
The soil is Blacklock clay loam. Curry County’s soil survey describes Blacklock soils as “nearly level to gently sloping, dark-colored soils that are poorly drained… A few small areas are used intensively for cranberries or are seeded to pasture.”
The only areas of Blacklock clay loam soil mapped in Curry County are in tracts that extend from north of Port Orford to Langlois.
“There hadn’t been a price drop in cranberries for a good 20 years, so we thought that was a really stable industry,” Puhl said. The couple enlisted someone to teach them how to grow cranberries, then began constructing their beds, which are slightly crowned like football fields so as to stay drained in the center.
With a few exceptions for pest and weed control, the only time the fields are flooded is during harvest. The beds are terraced, so water from rainwater catchment reservoirs can be reused.
“Our cranberries are not grown in actual bog lands,” Puhl said. “They grow in what are technically upland fields that we call beds. ‘Bogs’ has a connotation that wetlands are being used for the cranberries, which is not the case.
“When the beds are constructed, the land is leveled, dikes are built and the bed is sealed with a layer of clay to hold water during harvest. Then, a layer of sand or fine gravel is placed on top of that. The vines grow in the sand/gravel layer.”
The Puhls have 78 acres in production. They’re growing Stevens, Demoranville, Grygleski, Sundance, Haines, Pilgrim and HyRed varieties. They chose those varieties based on the berry size, color of the berry and their keeping quality.
“Cranberries are perennial plants,” Puhl said. “In some places, there are 100-year-old beds. They’re basically like a vineyard, once you plant them.
“They are a low-lying vine that grows along the ground. As long as you take care of them properly, they will survive. During the summer season, the plants are watered with sprinklers every other day.
Cranberries like a moist climate, which is one reason they do well on the Oregon coast. Because of the longer growing season here, the berries develop to a desirable deep red color and can be harvested through mid-December.
Most cranberry growers are done with their harvest by mid-October because of freezing temperatures and snow.
The farm has six full-time employees, and an additional 12 during harvest, Mary Puhl said. Their annual harvest totals about a million pounds.
The vines are pruned in January, weeds removed in February, and frost control begins in March. During June and July, fertilizer is applied. In September, frost control begins if needed. Harvest starts in October.
The Puhl family eats cranberries several times a month. Their favorite ways to eat them are as cooked cranberry sauce, or ground cranberries mixed with ground apples and oranges for a fresh, uncooked sauce on turkey sandwiches.
Locally, the Puhls’ cranberries are available through OtterBee’s Market.
Probably one of the more surprising visits to their cranberry farm was when it was featured on Mike Rowe’s TV show, “Dirty Jobs: Cranberry Farmer,” in 2008. At the time, Puhl said to the producer, “This isn’t a dirty job. Why are you interested?” The producer had been in the area and thought people would like to see the process.
Reruns of the episode usually appear about this time of year, Puhl noted.
For cranberry recipes and information about health benefits, visit capeblancocranberries.com.