HANSON — With a little more than a month to go before we celebrate Thanksgiving, the Hanson Public Library, and its Foundation, welcomed author Susan Playfair Oct. 16 to discuss her book on a component of that feast — the cranberry.
Playfair answered audience questions and sold copies of “America’s Founding Fruit: The Cranberry in a New Environment” and signed copies during her Sunday, Oct. 16 talk at the Hanson Library/Senior Center.
Along with blueberries and Concord grapes, cranberries make up the trinity of America’s native fruits, Playfair noted.
The cranberry, originally known as the “crane berry,” derives its name for the graceful bend of the plant’s flower. Commercial growing dates back to 1812 in New England and, by 1865, cranberries were being shipped across the country by rail.
“It truly is our iconic fruit, because, among other things, it was sent to King Charles in 1677 as sort of a diplomatic gesture to show what we could provide [as a colony] and as a sign of good will,” she said.
Long used as a food and a medicinal fruit by Native Americans, her book traces the adaptation of the cranberry by colonial immigrants and poses questions about the fruit’s ability to adapt to a warming climate.
“I was really curious about the cranberry and how it might react relative to temperature increases,” Playfair said. “It would, presumably be an indication of how other agriculture would also [be affected].”
It turns out, for example, that cranberry plants are flowering earlier, she said of information gleaned from growers with whom she spoke — two of whom provided access to 30 years of records, including flowering and harvesting timetables.
The plants also need between 1,700 to 2,000 chill hours to set fruit, and scientists are predicting that, by 2099, the climate in this area will be similar to that of the Carolinas now.
Playfair, whose great grandfather owned and managed cranberry bogs, graduated from Bard College and studied at Parson School of design and the French Fashion Academy, among other programs and has worked as an investment broker, fashion merchandiser, fashion and interior designer and author. She has also written a book on the future of the fishing industry titled, “Vanishing Species: Saving the Fish, Sacrificing the Fishermen.”
“When I was researching this book I actually came to Hanson several times,” Playfair said, and interviewed the late Ellen Stillman, who had worked for Ocean Spray for many years.
Local residents with roots in the cranberry business also took part in the event. Joanne Estes, whose grandfather, Marcus L. Urann, founded Ocean Spray, brought in an album of photos and postcards depicting cranberry harvesting operations as well as a 1951 issue of Eastern States Cooperator, a growers’ cooperative magazine, on which she was a cover model. Hanson Selectman Bill Scott, a cranberry grower, and his wife Louise donated an assortment of Ocean Spray cranberry drinks for the refreshment table.
“This may be the most learned group that I’ve spoken to,” Playfair said. “Many of you have connections to the cranberry industry.”
Ocean Spray’s products were a way to use berries deemed too imperfect to sell as whole berries — such as white berries or damaged fruit — as reduced waste while increasing profit, Playfair said.
Questions from the audience ranged from the number of cranberry varieties on the market, to the difference between wet and dry harvesting, how the berry is found in nature — in the bogs formed in kettle basins left by the retreating glaciers — and research now being done on climate change.
“It was always dry [harvesting] when I was growing up,” Estes said. Scott said dry picking is not only more time-consuming, it also puts more stress on the vine because of the nature of the machines used.
“It was the only way to get frost protection in the old days,” Scott also said of flooding bogs before the shift to sprinklers. “It looks like an easy crop.”
They also asked how craisins have improved the cranberry commercial market.
“There is a huge market for craisins,” Playfair said. “There is also a fledgling cranberry industry in Chile.”
The latter was started by a West Coast restaurateur to ensure a constant supply of craisins, part of which are used for a cranberry drink he featured on his menu.
“The benefits to him, which are not so good for everyone else in this country, is that because his operation is in Chile, they get very favorable tariff arrangements,” she said. “He’s able to ship them directly to China. As I understand it, that was bought out one or two years ago by Ocean Spray.”