“A sea serpent without affidavit, is like roast turkey without cranberry sauce;” Or, how the Larocque family created the first cranberry bog in Québec, part 2
Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome to this second part of our article on the first cranberry bog / farm / marsh in Québec. You will of course remember that this pioneering venture was the work of Jean Baptiste Edgar Larocque, founder of Les Producteurs de Québec Limitée of Lemieux, Québec.
In early November 1940, the experiment launched by that gentleman led to the organisation of a cranberry production centre able to fulfill (part of?) the needs of the Québec market, or so stated the head of the Service d’horticulture of the ministère de l’Agriculture of Québec. If yours truly reads correctly what Joseph-Henri Lavoie said that day, an experimental farm / school farm of sort was created at Lemieux, under the supervision of Larocque. Said farm would be run in accordance to an agreement signed in March 1940 at the latest by the federal government and that of Québec.
I know, I know. A provincial government cooperating with the federal government. How crazy was / is that? Sorry, sorry.
It is worth noting that the Premier of Québec in 1940, Joseph-Adélard Godbout, himself an agronomist, very much supported Larocque’s efforts. Incidentally, Godbout was also his own minister of agriculture, as well as his own minister of colonisation. Busy guy…
The team at Lemieux had a bit of a scare in the spring of 1942, however, when the waters of Lake Soulard, the main source of H2O of the cranberry bog, carried therein stems of common / field horsetails. The heating oil and brine sprayed by the workers soon obliterated the pesky equisetaceae. Mind you, that treatment might also have wiped out many, if not most of the cranberry plants.
And yes, Larocque’s firm harvested its first crop in 1943. This being said (typed?), that initial crop, harvested by hand, was by no means as large as hoped. One could argue that the first satisfactory crop was harvested in 1944.
By that time, Les Producteurs de Québec had sunk something like $ 100 000 in its cranberry bog, a sum which corresponds to approximately $ 1 900 000 in 2023 currency. According to some sources, the sum sunk might have reached $ 135 000, or $ 2 550 000 in 2023 currency. That second sum might have included a costly reconstruction of the cranberry bog’s water management system.
Larocque readily recognised the usefulness of the advice provided in 1944-45 by several Massachusetts cranberry growers.
As deep as they might have been, Larocque’s pockets were by no means deep enough to provide all that moolah. Eager to add a new agricultural product to its horn of plenty, the government of Québec granted him a sizeable sum of money at some point in the late 1930s. Mind you, that grant might not have been the only one that Les Producteurs de Québec received over the years.
Mind you, said government knew that Canadians bought large amounts of American cranberries. Acquiring only a fraction of that market, worth between $ 200 000 and $ 300 000 in Québec and up to $ 700 000 for Canada as a whole around 1938-39, sums which correspond to between $ 4 050 000 and $ 6 100 000 in Québec and up to $ 14 200 000 for Canada as a whole in 2023 currency, was well worth the risk, especially in wartime. As the Second World War raged, the government of Québec knew that the federal government was doing all it could to minimise imports of domestic consumption products.
The government of Québec was all the more willing to help Les Producteurs de Québec because cranberries were not the only arrow in that firm’s quiver. You see, Larocque had made several promises in order to obtain the government grant – and he had kept his word.
By 1942 at the latest, his firm was testing no less than 20 varieties of blueberries to see which would grow best on its land. It might also have been testing various varieties of potatoes, onions and carrots. Better yet, Les Producteurs de Québec had erected a state-of-the-art warehouse on its property, a warehouse where nearby farmers were able to store their products free of charge until winter, when vegetables could be sold at a higher price. And yes, my reading friend, if said farmers so desired, the products in question would be the fruit and / or vegetable varieties deemed best by Les Producteurs de Québec.
The fact that the firm employed quite a few people (40 to 50?) at harvest time in a region where the revenues from farming were insufficient to keep a family fed was the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae for the government of Québec.
Would you be interested in seeing a portrait of the founder of Les Producteurs de Québec, my reading friend? Yes? Wunderbar. Here is one…
Cover page of an article on Jean Baptiste Edgar Larocque and his cranberry bog, which included a portrait of that gentleman. Jean Robitaille, “Les oxycoccos du Québec.” La Revue moderne, December 1944, 16.
Oxycoccos, you ask, my puzzled reading friend? Yes, oxycoccos. Vaccinium oxycoccos was / is the scientific name of the swamp cranberry / small cranberry / bog cranberry / marshberry, a species found throughout the northern regions of Europe, Asia and America. A species very similar to Vaccinium macrocarpon, in other words the large cranberry / American cranberry / bearberry cultivated by Larocque.
Speaking (typing?) of oxycoccos, if yours truly may be allowed to digress for a moment, only for a moment, a rare occurrence you will admit, will you join me for a brief jaunt down memory lane at some point in the 1930s, I think, in Joliette, Québec, I think, again? We are to meet the leadership of a convent of a roman catholic congregation, the Filles de la charité, servantes des pauvres, better known as the Sœurs de la Charité de la Providence. Those ladies were then holding their annual end-of-year banquet for the benefit of the destitute.
One of the items on the menu was, and I quote, in the original gastronomic French, dinde aux oxycoccos, in other words turkey in oxycocco sauce. Those among the 300 or so dinner guests, all of them members of the local secular and religious elites, who bothered to read said menu were puzzled, if not somewhat concerned by that item. Puzzlement and / or concern grew as more and more dinner guests heard about the oxycoccan main course.
As you may well imagine, there was much hilarity when the orphans, yes, the orphans, who had served the appetiser, soup and first course showed up with said main course, which was of course turkey with cranberry sauce, but back to our story.
As of 1953, Les Producteurs de Québec was managed by one of Larocque’s sons, Charles Larocque. Indeed, the latter seemingly got the job in 1950. Charles Larocque’s brother, Lucien Larocque, managed the family’s fruit import and distribution firm, E. Larocque & Fils (Enregistrée?). Their father, semi retired at the time, was raising farm animals in one or more locations, more or less as a hobby.
The quintet of fields, with a total area of 16 or so hectares (40 or so acres), cultivated in 1953 by Les Producteurs de Québec produced 80 000 or so kilogrammes (180 000 or so pounds) of cranberries. That cranberry bog might, I repeat might, have been the largest and most productive in Canada.
And yes, the production of that cranberry bog, apparently unique in Québec, accounted for only a small percentage of the cranberries consumed in that province at the time. Most of these fruits still came from Ontario and, perhaps, Nova Scotia, and, even more so, from the United States.
And if you think that Les Producteurs de Québec’s production per hectare (5 000 or so kilogrammes), which corresponded to 4 500 or so pounds per acre, was impressive, allow me to point out that the average, yes, average, production of an American cranberry bog hovered around 5 550 or so kilogrammes per hectare (5 000 or so pounds per acre).
As the cranberries grew in the fields, the staff of Les Producteurs de Québec frequently checked the temperature and humidity using thermometers and hygrometers. It also used butterfly nets to see if nasty pests were present. If that proved to be the case, pesticides would be put to use.
The 80 000 kilogrammes (180 000 or so pounds) of cranberries present in the fields of Les Producteurs de Québec were not picked by hand. Nay. A special tool, known as a picking comb, was used for that purpose. Such a tool can be seen in the left side photograph at the beginning of the first part of this article, and… Yes, my reading friend, there was more than one tool in use.
Each of the tools used by the 40 to 50 men hired by Les Producteurs de Québec at the height of the harvest could carry up to 6.8 or so kilogrammes (15 or so pounds) of cranberries. One of those temporary workers could easily harvest almost 23 or so kilogrammes (50 or so pounds) of fruits in a single hour. And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend, the tool in question looked a tad like the bin of a miniature mechanical / powered shovel.
It went without saying that a number of cranberries fell off the plants when workers went through the fields. To gather those fallen fruits, the fields were flooded. Yes, yes, flooded. You see, cranberries contain large empty spaces which allow them to float. These floating cranberries were gently raked into a corner of the field where they were picked up using another special tool. Yes, my observant reading friend, the one in the right side photograph at the beginning of the first part of this article. Mind you, some sort of brand new, a vehicle perhaps, was seemingly introduced no later than 1959.
Incidentally, the original version of either of these tools, if not both, perhaps, might, I repeat might, have been developed in the 19th century, I think, by one or more employees of A.D. Makepeace Company, an American firm mentioned in the 1st part of this surprisingly long article.
In any event, the fruits gathered by the employees of Les Producteurs de Québec were then put in boxes, washed and sifted in order for them to be packaged according to their size.
From the looks of it, the fields of Les Producteurs de Québec contained 3 distinct varieties of cranberries in 1953-54:
- an early variety, the Early Black, developed around 1852 in Harwich, Massachusetts, by Cyrus Cahoon,
- a regular variety, the Searles Jumbo, developed around 1893 in Grand Rapids, Wisconsin, by Andrew Searles, and
- a late variety, the Howes, developed around 1843 in East Dennis, Massachusetts, by Eli Howes and, perhaps, his son, James Paine Howes.
The presence of this trio of varieties allowed Les Producteurs de Québec to deliver cranberries as early and as late in the season as one could imagine.
A brief digression if I may. The Early Black cranberry might, I repeat might, have been discovered by Cahoon’s spouse, Lettice Cahoon, on land which belonged to a sea captain by the name Nathaniel Robbins. Incidentally, Cahoon was also a sea captain, but back to our story.
The cranberry plants cultivated by Les Producteurs de Québec were implanted into the soil mechanically, after being placed on the surface of that soil, possibly manually.
What did Les Producteurs de Québec do with its cranberries in 1953, you ask, my foody reading friend? Well, fresh fruits went to Montréal, Québec, Québec, Québec, and Ottawa, Ontario. And yes, they went by truck. Fruits which were to be canned presumably travelled by truck as well. They went to a facility owned by Lucien Beaudin, in Saint-Jean-d’Iberville, Québec, and were marketed under the brand Elbée. Part of the production seemingly went to the United States. In what form, yours truly can not say.
Les Producteurs de Québec was presumably one of the few Canadian members of a cooperative owned by North American cranberry growers. Many / most members of that organisation, the American Cranberry Exchange, which became Eatmor Cranberries Incorporated in April 1953, presumably sold their cranberries under the Eatmor brand name. Incidentally, Les Producteurs de Québec had joined the American Cranberry Exchange in August 1946.
Incidentally, again, it joined the National Cranberry Association in 1954. The name of that organisation might mean nothing to you, my reading friend, unless you knew that it became Ocean Spray Cranberries Incorporated in August 1959. Yes, yes, that Ocean Spray.
Mind you, it is also possible that the association Les Producteurs de Québec joined in 1954 was in fact Ocean Spray Canada Limited, a cooperative which might, I repeat might, have been based in… Saint-Jean-d’Iberville. Ocean Spray Canada, a subsidiary of Ocean Spray Cranberries, which was also a cooperative, seemingly existed at least until 2006 but might have been based then in Langley, British Columbia, which made a lot of sense given the large majority of the cranberries produced in Canada at the time came from that province.
And yes, you are quite correct, my reading friend, both Harwich and East Dennis were / are located in the Cape Cod region.
Given the frequent coincidental presence of that region of the state of Massachusetts in the cranberrian issues of our glorious blog / bulletin / thingee, you are undoubtedly wondering if, like the famous Captain Jack Sparrow, a gentleman (?) mentioned in many issues of said blog / bulletin / thingee since September 2018, yours truly plans it all, or just makes it up as I go along. A gentleman never tells, it is said, and the non gentleman that yours truly is shall do the same today.
This being said (typed?), the adoption by the management of Les Producteurs de Québec of the cultivation methods used by cranberry growers of the Cape Cod region eventually proved to be a mistake. The soil and climate of the cranberry bogs of Wisconsin proved to be far more similar to those of Lemieux than those of Massachusetts. The switch was seemingly under way in 1953. And yes, the profitability of the firm greatly improved from 1955 onward.
Incidentally, a gentleman by the name of Edward Sackett pioneered the cultivation of cranberries in Wisconsin. He did so around 1860, near Berlin, Wisconsin, and…
You know what, my reading friend, yours truly feels a tad more lazy than usual. Why not turn what was heading toward a division in 2 parts into a division in 3 parts? Do we have an accord? Wunderbar!
See you later, in order to pore through part 3. And profuse apologies for concocting such a lengthy and verbose text.
Incidentally, did you know that a species of Brazilian bee misidentified in 1874 by the famous English entomologist Frederick Smith of what was then the British Museum of London, England, was identified as a distinct species by a Brazilian zoology professor and one of his master’s students, who christened it Euglossa bazinga in 2012? I kid you not.
Interestingly, the American film and entertainment studio behind the very popular American television series The Big Bang Theory, in other words, Warner Brothers Entertainment Incorporated, had sent in the required paperwork to trademark the famous Sheldonian catchword in January 2011. That registered trademark became effective in April 2012. No, not on April 1st.
Ironically, Sheldon Lee “Shelly” Cooper was / is allergic to bee stings.
And yes, that unforgettable and barely bearable character was mentioned many times in our equally unforgettable but very bearable blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2019.