Growing cranberries out of the ashes

  • 2005-09-21
  • By Elizabeth Celms
RIGA - On April 26, 1986, reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. Within days, highly radioactive clouds had bellied their way across the U.S.S.R. and most of Europe. The damage - both to the environment and people - was devastating. Many saw Chernobyl as one of the century's worst catastrophes. Andris Spats, however, saw it as a sign.

"A group of my colleagues and I met to discuss the accident. Based on biblical stories - which told of a day where the sky would light up, the waters would turn toxic and people's hair would fall out - we had to consider that this was Chernobyl," says Spats, who was working as a scientist in plasma-chemistry for the U.S.S.R. at the time. "If that was the case, we realized that next would come the collapse of the Soviet Union - as Nostradamus had prophesized."

"We decided that we must prepare for this," he continues. "If the Soviet Union were to collapse, we would have to look for new jobs. So we all started looking, and I turned to agriculture."

Five years later, the Iron Curtain fell.

In Latvia, which was reputed for its scientific research during the Soviet era, thousands lost their jobs. Spats, meanwhile, was securely working away in a fresh occupation: cranberry farming.

According to Maija Bundule, deputy director of the science department at the Latvian Ministry of Education and Science, the Academy of Sciences had four to five times as many researchers in the Soviet era as it does today.

"While part of the U.S.S.R., Latvia was a center for science research. It had strong funding from Moscow, and quite a reputation," she explains. "Today its reputation is not so high, mostly because we lack funding."

After losing their jobs, most researchers turned to business and banking, others were forced to go abroad. Few were able to continue in science. Spats was one of them.

Just months after Chernobyl, Spats and a group of his colleagues began researching cranberry farming. At the time, all farms were state-owned, yet this was already beginning to change.

"In the late 80s it became possible to buy land from collective farms and cultivate it separately - it wasn't privatization, but one of the first steps toward this," he explains.

In 1994, Spats was able to acquire 39 hectares of peat farm. Using his background in science engineering and books on cultivation sent from America, Spats hoped to resurrect a sea of cranberries from a toxic wasteland of peat.

"Although farmers were unaware of this during the Soviet era, my colleagues and I realized that peat, in reaction to the sun's light, gives off C02 and NO2 gasses - plus methane. These toxins burn away at the ozone, as well as trees and plants growing nearby," Spats adds, pointing to a sickly looking birch tree, its contorted roots groping uselessly above the soil in search of nutrients.

According to a 2002 report on the environmental danger of peat, one hectare of the decomposition produces 40 tons of CO2 per year. In Latvia alone, there are 54,000 hectares of peat.

Ironically, the acidic, boggy earth necessary for peat farming - if cultivated properly - is also ideal for growing cranberries. Of course, transforming hectares of a toxic substance into a flourishing cranberry farm is easier said than done. The first step was to find the necessary investment.

"Our first big boost came in 1996 when Latvia received a U.S. grant of $25 million through the Agriculture Support Fund," Spats says. "A year later, a private investor - a Latvian American from Wisconsin - agreed to fund our project. So far he has provided the most backing."

The scientist received a surprising amount of support from the American Cranberry Growers' Association, who offered to introduce their well-established methods and machinery to these Latvian pioneers. The proposition was lucrative, but Spats had his own ideas.

"An American had already set up one cranberry farm in Liepaja," he explains. "But you see the soil in Latvia is much different than in Wisconsin. The farmers didn't pay attention to such details, and so the crops failed."

Determined to develop his own methods of agriculture - based on Latvia's soil and weather conditions - Spats relied more on books than the professional advice of American farmers.

"They had all learned cranberry farming from their fathers, it was passed down through the generations. A group of scientists teaching themselves solely from books - they found the idea humorous," Spats says with a smile.

His first two crops were failures. The Americans were still laughing.

Four years later, after much research and experimentation, he was finally able to produce his first healthy crop.

Today, Spats grows 14 different types of cranberries - eight strains from America and six cultivated by a scientist in Latvia. The conditions for each kind of cranberry vary. Some require a soggy, bog-like bed, while others flourish in dry soil.

After the cranberries are harvested, Spats' workers carry them to a ramshackle shed to be sorted and packed in bags. In America, state-of-the-art machines use photo-sensitive technology to distinguish the ripe berries from the green ones, throwing the latter out. One machine costs around $50,000. Spats managed to buy a more primitive but nonetheless effective version in Latvia for 1,300 lats (1,870 euros).

"In one hour with this machine we can pack 200-300 kilograms of berries," says Rihards, who just started working this fall. "Today we produced about half a ton. Ideally, we need to produce one to one-and-a-half tons per day."

With only six hectares of cranberries, Spats' farm is still in its infancy. But for several years now he has managed to maintain a steady local business, as well as selling to Finland and Ukraine. So far, he can't complain.

"Of course we hope to move forward," Spats says. "We'll never be an Ocean Spray, but we have our ambitions."