In Falmouth’s Cranberry Bog Wars
By Michael Bradley
CAPE COD, MA – The recent victory over the Handy Cranberry Trust by a coalition of activists in the Town of Falmouth may not be the cause for celebration that some conservationists and naturalists currently believe it is.
The activists effort, largely spearheaded by Wendi Buesseler and the Coonamessett Park Coalition that she co-chairs, managed to get a resolution through the recent Falmouth Town Meeting calling for the creation of a park on part of the land currently leased for cranberry growth, and the restoration of a river habitat on the remaining property. That resolution has now became a formal reality by a vote of the selectmen and the conservation commission.
The cranberry bogs that Brian Handy and his company leased and managed for decades will be terminated by the end of the year.
To the activists, this seems like a win-win. Mr. Handy’s commercial farming will come to an end, a natural environment will be re-created, and nature lovers who live in the town will have greater access to those public lands.
But this may prove to be a shortsighted victory.
Cranberry farming is not only a traditional Cape Cod enterprise that is part of the charm of the peninsula, it is the last vestige of commercial farming in an area that is all too rapidly becoming an over-developed, commuter based extension of metropolitan suburbia. Cranberry bogs and their natural need for and use of water from streams, ponds, creeks and small rivers were given blanket protection many years ago under state legislation governing wetlands.
People who live near actively worked cranberry bogs can be reasonably certain that the land won’t suddenly end up a development of either trophy homes or up-scale commuter abodes, where the breadwinner drives an hour or two each way in order to live on Cape Cod.
Even in Falmouth, where the cranberry bog land was publicly owned and therefore open to being changed by town vote, the long-term result could be very different from what the Coonamessett Park Coalition and its allies now envision. Once the cranberry farming is eliminated, the use of the land can be much more easily changed again, according to the increased demands being put upon the municipality by population growth and a variety of commercial and tax base factors.
Cranberry bogs, even ones that were as heavily developed as those of the Handy Cranberry Trust, may look very attractive only a few years from now, but it will be extremely hard if not impossible to restart them once they are closed.
There is no doubt that under Brian Handy’s management, the Handy Cranberry Trust has become a modern farming enterprise, utilizing heavy equipment ranging from huge bucket loaders to 18 wheel tractor trailers, coupled with aerial spraying and even the use of helicopters to lift the giant boxes of berries from the bog to the waiting trucks during September harvests.
To find comparable farming techniques, one would have to look to the Midwest, where gigantic mechanized combines do the work that was once done by dozens if not hundreds of workers. The same is now true on Cape Cod.
Gone are the days when rows of migrant workers knelt with hand scoops and pulled the cranberries from the vines. Now a few professionals with a few extra seasonal hands use all types of powered equipment to handle harvests and maintain the bogs year-round.
These changes, coupled with an undiplomatic gruffness of manner, have made Brian Handy an easy target of the activists. A fourth generation cranberry grower and a tenth generation native of Bourne, Falmouth’s neighboring town, where his family trust does not lease but rather owns its cranberry bogs, Mr. Handy is known to be honest to a fault, a man whose word can be quite literally taken to the bank, and whose handshake is as good as a contract.
But he also has a reputation of being single-minded in the development of his bogs for maximum yield, to the point of being heavy if not ham-handed. If he feels the bog needs more sunlight, he doesn’t hesitate to cut back 50-foot hardwood trees, and if he thinks there is a need for a central sandpit, he is quick to level an area and create a giant sand dune.
These factors, coupled with his use of modern pesticides, have given ammunition to his detractors. But they underestimate the man. He is college educated and can be very articulate, and is usually open to discussion, although he has a surprising shyness. Yet he’s an imposing figure, a big, burly man toughened by hard work, and not easy to approach by people who are used to working behind a desk, or in other white collar pursuits; however, those activists and professionals know how to use the system. Mr. Handy, on the other hand, works with his hands and embodies an old-fashioned view of government, expecting that if you’re not violating the law you should be left alone.
All of these factors worked to his detriment in the recent cranberry wars of Falmouth. In an interview with the Cape Cod Times he illustrated how poorly equipped he was to fight the activists. "I made arrangements to speak (at the Falmouth Town Meeting)," Handy told The Cape Times, "I was kind of waiting until the bullets stopped flying" before taking the microphone. But he waited too long and a vote was called and he lost.
Yet he is willing to continue the fight, and perhaps the issue can be brought back to the town for reconsideration in a way that will provide a more balanced discussion. That would be to Falmouth’s long-term advantage, since a compromise over how the bogs are operated while allowing their continued existence could give the town a true win-win situation.
And such a compromise would be good for Cape Cod as a whole, since there would be no precedent set whereby towns or individuals could pressure the already beleaguered cranberry growers to convert their bogs to other uses, which would more naturally lead to further residential and commercial development rather than open space.