Bandon's Cranberry Farms: Mining for "Red Gold"

As we drive past Bandon’s many cranberry bogs, our curiosity is piqued. How do cranberries grow? How does the cranberry harvest work? What is the history of cranberry farming in Bandon? Cranberry farming has a long and rich history here in Bandon. Charles Dexter McFarlin came west from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to pan for gold in California, but when those plans didn’t pan out, he focused on mining for “red gold,” a term still used to describe growing cranberries in this area. He had vines shipped from his eastern home, planted his first bog in Coos County in 1865, and harvested a variety of cranberry well suited to growing on the Pacific coast. This variety is to this day known as the McFarlin.

The industry grew from there, and Ocean Spray, the corporation responsible for much of the cranberry juice in todays market, opened a facility in Bandon in 1946. Today, more than 100 growers farm and harvest about 1600 acres in and around Bandon and are responsible for 95% of Oregon’s cranberries and about 5% of those grown in the nation.

Dennis Bowman is one of those 100 area growers, and this month he has opened his farm on McTimmons Lane about 7 miles south of Bandon for tours, samples of their cranberries and cranberry syrup and concentrate, and a look into the cranberry harvest process. Drive just a quarter mile west off of 101, and the Bowman sign appears on the right side of the road. Turning onto the driveway, the family home surrounded by apple trees comes into view, and then the cranberry fields, or bogs: 10 in total. During cranberry harvest season, Dennis, his son, and a helper or two are typically seen out in the bogs or on the dykes: raised grassy areas that separate the bogs, hold back water, and give farmers a place to drive equipment from bog to bog.

Wet harvesting, the process used by the Bowman’s for their cranberry harvest, is the method used by about 90% of Bandon’s growers. It begins with flooding the highest bog on the land. The bogs are stair stepped so that after the first bog has been harvested, the water is drained to the next highest bog with gravity’s help, then the next highest, and so on. With this technique, water is reused, and electricity is saved as pumping the water is largely unnecessary.

After the bog has been flooded, the cranberries are beaten from the vines. The beater, a specially designed piece of machinery, is driven through the thigh-high water, and a beater bar separates the berries from the plants. The buoyant berries float to the surface and are ready for nature to do her job. The nearly ubiquitous wind at the Bowman farm blows the berries to one end of the bog, making it possible for the farmer to set up the next step of the cranberry harvest operation in just one area.

During my visit, the wind blew fairly consistently from the south and pushed the berries to the north end of the bog. There Dennis and his small crew set up the conveyor, a water-powered machine that works rather like an escalator, gathering up the berries on steps and pulling them up to the top where they dump into the back of a truck. While the conveyor did its job, Dennis, clad in hip waders, and another man managed the boom, a long plastic tube that encircles the floating berries, keeping them corralled and ready to go on the conveyor.

The berries, safely in the truck, are ready to be processed. They first go to a building where workers will pick them over, looking for leaves, unripe or inferior berries, or anything else that may not belong. They are then ready to be sold as fresh berries, frozen, or transformed into cranberry products.

A visit to the Bowman farm is well worth a visit and the short drive from Bandon. Although a smaller farm than most, there one can get a first-hand look at what it takes to mine for Bandon’s red gold. Start your tour by watching the video about growing and harvesting cranberries in the area and sample the cranberry concentrate and syrup there at the farm stand. Someone is available to answer questions and take visitors to the cranberry harvest site to get an up-close and personal view. The farm is open for tours until October 15 from 8-4; coming on the earlier side is best to witness the harvesting excitement.

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