Middle Acres Farm

Middle Acres Farm in Tiverton, RI


Founded in 1820, Middle Acres Farm is a 7 acre farm run by Lucien Lebreux.
1057 Crandall Rd
Tiverton, RI

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3 miles from Tiverton, RI 02878
(401) 624-8796 preferred


 

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Farm Profile: Middle Acres Farm by Elizabeth Field, edible RHODY
Published: October 1, 2009

Tiverton, RI - It’s a clear mid-October day, and a crew of workers armed with long rakes and snaky rubber-edged booms stands thigh-deep in water and cranberries in Lucien Lebreux’s seven-acre cranberry bog at Middle Acres Farm in Tiverton. At work since dawn, they’ve flooded the bog with water from an adjacent pond and “beaten,” or knocked, the berries off the vines with mechanized, underwater reels, allowing the berries to float unblemished in the water.

Using the long booms they’ve corralled the fruit into vast floating islands of densely packed fruit, then pumped the berries up onto an elevated platform, rinsed them and sent them tumbling via conveyor belt into a waiting trailer.

“It’s a lot like the way they take oil spills out of water,” says Lebreux, a weathered but spry 80-year-old Tiverton native, as the afternoon sun casts shadows over the vast expanses of cranberries and the areas of open water reflect the sky’s deep blue hue.

At the end of a long day and a half, Lebreux’s 10 acres of bog— the above-mentioned seven-acre bog and a smaller three-acre bog—have yielded some 3,450 barrels (345,000 pounds) of cranberries. A juicemaking variety called Stevens, the cranberries are then trucked to a processing facility in East Freetown, Massachusetts, owned by Cliffstar Corporation’s (one of the nation’s largest private-label juice manufacturers, whose clients include Shaw’s and Stop & Shop supermarkets).

There, they are sorted and placed in pools where technicians determine the percentage of usable fruit. Growers receive a bonus if this tops 95 percent; Lebreux proudly reports that in 2008 his berries were 97 percent usable. In 2008 Cliffstar paid its growers about $63 per barrel.

Once washed, boxed and frozen, the berries are shipped to Cliffstar’s manufacturing plant in Dunkirk, New York, where they are eventually turned into juice.

Lebreux didn’t start out as a cranberry grower. About a month after the harvest, on a cool November day, we’re chatting in his spacious 2- year-old house, its woodstove cranked up. He’s showing me his many trophies, a good number of which have statuettes of cows. There’s the 1969 Governor’s Trophy, the Green Pastures Award for Outstanding Farmer of the Year, the Progressive Breeder gold medal, and many others— all a paean to his prize-winning herd of Holsteins.

“I bought the farm in 1956,” he says. Shortly after, he moved his cows from a nearby smaller plot to the 260-acre property, which has been a farm since the 1820s. He cleared about 80 acres for a dairy operation, a commercial greenhouse and a roadside stand. And he worked day in and day out caring for up to 100 cows. But the dairy operation was never very lucrative.

“The milk business has been down ever since I can remember,” Lebreux says. “All agriculture is the same: You’d have a good year and then four or five bad ones—weather or some other disaster. If the price of milk goes up, the price of grain goes up more.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, realtors started approaching him with ambitious development schemes for his Tiverton property. One envisioned placing a 40-acre cranberry bog in betweenmultiple new houses and a golf course. The deal fell through but it planted an idea in Lebreux’s head.

Meanwhile his nephew, Dana Lebreux, was working for an Assonet, Massachusetts, construction company that had converted its old gravel pits into cranberry bogs. The return was good. Cranberries were selling for about $80 a barrel.

“I had never thought anything about cranberries,” says Lebreux, but in 1997, in partnership with his nephew, he put in two bogs and an adjacent two-acre pond for both irrigation and flooding of the bogs during the harvest.

The next year, the bottom fell out of the business. The price of cranberries dropped to $17 per 100-pound barrel. “I never considered selling out, though,” Lebreux says. “I could have rented the land or grown hay.” Eventually the market turned around, and Lebreux sold the cows in 2002. Cranberries are a lot less work than cows, he says, which “require [working] 25 hours a day, 366 days of the year.”

We’ve now moved into Lebreux’s open kitchen, which faces west over the cranberry bogs, still scarlet in the grey November light. There’s a pot of soup on the stove, and his yellow Labrador, Buddy, sprawls by the woodstove.

“Try this,” Lebreux says, reaching into his large refrigerator for a pitcher of homemade cranberry juice. It’s thick, opaque and a rich burgundy color, unlike the pale, watery store-bought variety. It has a lovely tart and sweet quality with overtones of apple.

Lebreux, who lives alone, followed the suggestion of his neighbor Dottie Wolkie, who sells his cranberries at her roadside stand.

“I boiled 10 pounds of berries with three cups of sugar and a little water, and put it through a food mill,” he says. Then he used the remaining thick pulp to make a cranberry sauce. “It’s too smooth for me,” he admits. “I like the whole-berry sauce better.”

Lebreux is one of Rhode Island’s few cranberry growers. “Why aren’t more farmers jumping on the cranberry bandwagon?” I ask.

“The bogs are expensive to start up and tricky,” he says. “It’s hard to get permits and you’ve gotta have water. You’ve got to know when to irrigate, when to fertilize. You’ve got to prune them every four or five years—they’re like a grapevine, crawlin’ things that grow to about fourto five-inches tall, like a mat.”

Additionally, every couple of years, growers put an extra inch of sand on the perennial plants, a process that ideally takes place in the dead of winter when they flood the bog and allow a layer of ice to form. Depositing the sand on the ice enables an even distribution when the ice melts. For the past three years, though, Lebreux says, the winters
have been too warm for ice to solidify. Conversely, in the late spring an unexpected frost will kill any plants that have started to flower.

Money is probably the real reason why more growers haven’t gone into cranberries in Rhode Island. “Down in Cape Cod, the land is low, sandy and full of water puddles,” explains Lebreux. “It’s land you can’t use for anything except growing cranberries. Here, the land is good— [most years] potatoes bring in just as much as cranberries.”

On the subject of land and money, in 2007 Lebreux sold the development rights toMiddle Acres Farm to a consortium of state, federal and private organizations. Now the land can still be farmed but never developed. The deal enabled Lebreux to build his new house—the last that will ever be built on his land—plus his open fields will be preserved.

Now content with his cranberries, a large vegetable garden and 30 “beefers” (beef cattle), which keep the grassmowed down and bring in additional income, Lebreux enjoys the rhythm of the seasons. His sister, Anita Lebreux, comes up from Florida to spend the summer inTiverton.

“I’m happy I went into cranberries,” he says. “It’s something different. I don’t have to get up before dawn every day of the year to care for the cows. I can coast a little.”