THE MUSKOKAN - Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh is one of the largest cranberry-growing operations in North America and the centrepiece of the annual Bala Cranberry Festival. But it’s notable for something else as well: a tireless devotion to land stewardship and ecologically friendly agriculture. Owners Murray Johnston and his wife Wendy Hogarth recognize the importance of their cranberry marsh to the bio-system and go to great lengths to balance profits against protection.
Cranberry bog-fields provide wetland functions, including filtering groundwater, recharging the aquifer, providing storm drainage and flood control, and habitat for plants and animals.
Photo by Kim Good
Cranberry bogs play a critical role in promoting a healthy environment. The bog-fields where cranberry vines are cultivated provide the same functions of natural wetlands, such as filtering groundwater, recharging the aquifer, providing storm drainage and flood control, and habitat for plants and animals.
Bogs are a unique ecosystem, distinct from a swamp or other forms of wetland. They are defined as a habitat that has a dense layer of peat, acidic soil, and where water is near the soil surface, usually covered in moss and shrubs. It just so happens that bogs are also ideal for growing cranberries, as Orville Johnston, Murray’s father, discovered when he founded the farm back in 1952.
Cranberry growing is farming with minimum impact on the environment. It’s a rule of thumb in the industry that you cultivate only one-tenth of the land, leaving the remainder in a natural state. As a result, of the Johnston’s 350 acres only 27 are currently under cultivation.
Even those fields under cultivation are routinely visited by wildlife, ranging from moose and deer, to beaver, bear, muskrat, otter, skunk, porcupine, raccoon, and foxes. It is also home to numerous types of birds, including waterfowl such as ducks, Canada geese and loons, which nest in the wetland, as well as predatory birds like owls, heron, and eagles. And while most people don’t give them much thought, insects and other small life forms (snails, crayfish, worms, and leeches) important to a healthy environment are also plentiful in bogs.
Farmers often complain about animals and pests damaging their crops, and with all the creatures inhabiting a cranberry bog you would think they would hinder the cranberry growing. Not so, according to Hogarth.
“I love all the critters we get around here,” she said. “If an animal becomes a pest we are the ones who have to change. We value wildlife and work hard to live in harmony with it and the environment. We believe very strongly in land stewardship.”
As a consequence, the farm practises Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an ecologically based approach, rather than resort to chemicals or other damaging or intrusive means.
Biological controls are the first step in defending against animals that might become a nuisance. This means encouraging and preserving natural enemies to keep pests manageable, such as birds that eat harmful insects. There are also farming practices which work against pests, such as applying sand in the spring to bury insect eggs and weeds, flooding fields to drown insect eggs, keeping grass well mowed to discourage weeds from going to seed, and putting up electric fences. One of the most time-consuming tasks during the summer is pulling weeds by hand, but the effort is worth it because it means no herbicides are used.
The best way to control pests is to monitor the types and population present, and only act if critical levels are reached.
Chemical fertilization is kept to a minimum. Soil and tissue samples are collected and examined on a regular basis, and based on these findings fertilizers are used to replace the nutrients the cranberry vines have taken from the soil. Essentially, the farm is merely returning to the soil what they harvest each year.
“This summer we received Local Food Plus Certification. Local Food Plus is an award-winning, charitable, non-profit committed to growing sustainable food systems. Certification recognizes our environmentally and socially responsible growing practices. We also won a Premier’s Agri-Food Innovation Excellence award,” said Hogarth proudly. “It’s never been clearer the need for sustainable agriculture.”
In an effort to promote wetland conservation, Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh introduced a Get Wild program, which introduces kids to the importance of wetlands. Part of this includes a catch-and-release program that allows kids to see and touch animals up close. In addition, Johnston and Hogarth have designated some of their wetlands as part of the Bala Bog Natural Heritage Area.
It’s all part of a concerted effort to balance operating a farm with husbanding the natural resources of the land.
“Our farm functions as part of a larger ecosystem,” Hogarth said. “Maintaining the health of the whole is imperative to our farm and our family.”