John-Paul Sliva had an “aha moment” when he first started the Bard College Farm four years ago. “The soil at the farm is silty clay, which is basically heavy, crappy, agricultural soil,” he says. “I was thinking about what would do well there and a light went on in my head. Cranberries. It’s not that cranberries love this soil, but they can tolerate it.”
While cranberries are considered one of the fruits native to North America (the others include blueberries and Concord grapes), they had never been grown in the Hudson Valley before. When people heard about the bright red Bard berries, they often asked Sliva if there is a bog in Tivoli. “No,” says Sliva. “It’s a simulated bog. It’s man-made with peat moss and we keep it moist.”
The first year, with the help of student farmers, Sliva harvested 50 pounds of berries. “By the third year, we had 200 pounds of cranberries. The season has gotten better every single year.”
Traditionally, at large-scale production facilities in places like Cape Cod or Washington State, cranberries are “wet-harvested.” Basically, this means that the bog is flooded and the cranberries, which float, rise to the top and can be easily gathered. “But all of our cranberries are hand-picked,” says Sliva. October is harvest time and Sliva says he is grateful to the crew of students “who put a whole lot of energy into plucking. It’s a lot of work, but it can be nice being outside that time of year. And the soft peat on the ground makes it easy on the knees.”
Today, the 80- by 70-foot cranberry patch has about 500 plants. The berries are sold at Bard’s own farm stand on Thursdays, as well as at Montgomery Place Orchards down the road. Savvy chefs at upscale eateries like Serevan in Amenia and Kingston’s Duo Bistro also frequently scoop up the locally grown treats. And no wonder: The bright red berries are not only super healthy — they are packed with Vitamin C and are known to naturally combat urinary-tract infections — but the tart berry is surprisingly versatile and can be a starring player in much more than sauce. “I’ve created a nice brine for grilling meats,” says Sliva. “But basically, I just eat them by the handful. You can keep them in a bag in your refrigerator all winter long.”
For more information, visit www.bardfarm.org.