FLETCHER — Bob Lesnikoski, or Cranberry Bob, just decided to grow cranberries one day.
At least, that seems to be the explanation for why Lesnikoski, a former logger, began Vermont Cranberry Company, the only commercial cranberry grower in the state, on his and his wife Betsy’s property in Fletcher in 1996.
“I just met some people that started growing cranberries in Maine,” he said on Thursday, adding that if it worked in Maine, he thought it should work in Vermont. Lesnikoski did coursework at the University of Massachusetts, read books, and networked with other growers to learn how to do it.
Some 18 years later, Vermont Cranberry Company has five cranberry beds, an array of products, multiple distributors, and a lot of local support.
Lesnikoski is a wiry, tan, and quick-walking man who wears cool-looking shades and who is always on the move. He does almost all his cranberry harvesting, pressing, drying, freezing, and delivery work himself, with some “help” from Merlin, the golden lab, and a couple of friends.
“He keeps me cheerful,” Lesnikoski said of his dog.
During the off-season, Lesnikoski helps on commercial fishing boats in Rye, N.H., and this past winter, he was on a salmon boat in Alaska. His wife, Betsy, is a forester and works for Burlington Electric Department.
On Thursday, fall foliage burned bright in oranges, yellows and reds, a sign, said Lesnikoski, that the cranberries were just about ripe for harvest.
“We’ll start harvesting next week,” he said. Lesnikoski added that things began a little earlier than normal this year – usually he’ll harvest around Columbus Day.
Much to the disappointment of some, he said, Lesnikoski dry harvests cranberries – no bogs or waders like in the television commercials. He added, however, that there is a wet harvest at the end of picking to clean out the bed, unrelated to actually harvesting the cranberries.
“It’s more of a sanitation thing,” he said.
As far as the growing process goes, Lesnikoski explained that he plants cranberry beds on a flattened surface with coarse sand, adds irrigation pipes, then plants runners, or vine-like plants, that get pruned in the spring. About five years down the road, cranberries can be harvested for the first time, and every year after that.
“We’re very low input,” said Lesnikoski. There are only two occasional pest problems – cranberry fruit worm and rot – and he uses little to no fertilizer, depending on the year.
Lesnikoski is also trying something new this year and letting the walls around his bed grow instead of mowing them, in order to encourage wild pollinators to flourish and help pollinate the fruit.
“It’s really all about habitat,” he said.
In general, cranberries aren’t too problematic to grow around here. “They’re a northern plant,” Lesnikoski said. “They’re native to Vermont.”
He added that there are cranberry growers in New York as well as Quebec, despite the fact that cranberries are generally associated with southeastern Massachusetts. Lesnikoski said that association grew out of cranberries being a coastal crop, since they were usually sent on ships to help prevent and cure scurvy.
Each year, Lesnikoski harvests and eventually delivers about 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of cranberries. “It’s on the low end of average for cranberries,” he added.
He then sells about 16 percent of those cranberries fresh between October and Christmas, and the rest pressed for juice, dried, or frozen throughout the year. Vermont Cranberry Company recently received a $15,000 grant from the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Initiative to build a freezer and cooler on site in Fletcher, which Lesnikoski expects to be finished for use this fall.
On Thursday, Lesnikoski, his longtime friend Oliver Blackman, of Waterville, and his neighbor Holly Burns helped work on the facility, sitting right across from Lesnikoski’s house off of North Road. Blackman helps out each fall when Lesnikoski said he’s delivering product every day, and Burns helps out with packaging.
Prior to having his own freezer and cooler, Lesnikoski would bring his berries wherever he could to store them. “I just kind of freezer surfed,” he said.
It’s important to have a way to preserve cranberries, said Lesnikoski, since they’re a cool weather product. Perhaps because of their association with the holidays, nobody likes to buy cranberries in the summer, despite Vermont Cranberry Company’s offerings at the Stowe and Burlington farmer’s markets.
Instead, Vermont Cranberry Company sells to local distributors and producers such as Pumpkin Village Foods, which takes product from Franklin County to New York City, Rail City in St. Albans, and Boyden Valley Winery, of Cambridge, which makes cranberry wine.
Lesnikoski said his company’s survival is due to his great community customers. “They really work with us to get the product out,” he said. He added that Vermont is a pretty great place to sell local, value-added products.
“The ideas have to come from the farmer, but with a good idea and a good product, the marketplace will accept it,” Lesnikoski said.
To learn more about Vermont Cranberry Company, visit www.vermontcranberry.com.