The bucket lists of a surprising number of people include putting on waders to sink into a cranberry bog. So many people have told me that standing amidst the shiny red berries is one of their dreams: people from surprising places like Mexico, Iran and Japan. I’ve personally wanted to get chest-deep in that glorious, glistening redness since I was a child. My birth state, Wisconsin, grows more of the beloved tart-sweet fruit than any other place on the planet—60% of the world’s crop!
That desire motivated us to drive through central Wisconsin this fall, and what a treat for the eyes it is! The contrasting vivid colors of the bright red cranberries among the gorgeous orange, gold and red autumn leaves and green evergreens are an incredible sight to behold! Over 18,000 acres of sunken beds are raked and flooded in the fall so that the berries can be corralled and harvested. Wisconsin cranberry farmers—still largely family owned—steward an additional 160,000 acres as adjacent wetlands, woodlands and uplands. Each acre of berries requires an additional 7-10 acres of support acreage to naturally purify and recycle the water that is so crucial to this type of farming. Huge networks of ditches, dikes, dams and reservoirs add to the iconic natural beauty of this unique region. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
We were headed to the Wetherby Cranberry Company’s public harvest or “Wetherby Wade” in Warrens, Wisconsin. An independent family farm, Grandpa Jim and Grandma Nodji Van Wychen are third generation growers. Their son, Henry, and son-in-law, Michael Gnewikow, are proud members of the fourth generation. The Van Wychen’s other three children and ten grandchildren—the fifth generation—are also major contributors to the farming operation. All were present last weekend and will be again this upcoming Saturday, October 3rd from 9 am to noon for their final public harvest of the season. This is your chance to put on those waders and slide among the glistening red berries!
The experience of being embraced by cranberries was way better than I’d even dreamed! Some of the best things in life are difficult to explain, and the wonderfulness of being in a cranberry marsh is one of them. People keep saying this is something they’ve wanted to do all their lives. That wasn’t true for Greg; he’d never even given it a thought; it wasn’t on his radar. Yet, once he got in the marsh he was blown away. As he says, “It’s like playing baseball in a cornfield, swimming with dolphins or running with the bulls. You are sharing space with nature; you can’t get any closer to a cranberry.” I was delighted to see multiple frogs jumping around on top of the floating cranberries! Next incarnation, I may just need to be born as a frog in cranberry country!
I had been a bit fearful of slipping in the marsh as I had my camera and didn’t want to get it wet. But the boots have tread that makes footing steady, and the water is only knee to thigh-high. There were quite a few small children thoroughly enjoying the Wetherby Wade. We walked down a ramp into the bed, and once inside tread carefully on the fragile vines underneath. The night before the bed had been harrowed (picked) so that the berries floated to the surface. In the early morning a bright yellow plastic boom and blowers were used to corral the berries in a bunch on one end of the bed. We then had the pleasure of walking gently around amongst them. The feeling was pure joy and delight! Amidst the laughter and exclamations of “this is so cool!” were ear to ear smiles on young and old.
Before our experience in the beds we thoroughly enjoyed an excellent tour of the farm conducted by Nodji, who received the Master Agriculturalist award in 2014. We were able to witness a bunch of the farm equipment in action and hear her explain the ins and outs of the growing process. This is an absolutely perfect day for families! Everyone has fun and learns a bit, too. And it checks off that bucket list!
After the tour, instruction and wading in the bog we visited the farm-to-table store where we loaded up on fresh berries, dried berries, cranberry wine, raw cranberry honey and cranberry cookbooks from the local homemakers’ club. The Van Wychens gifted each of us a certificate for a free surprise at the Cranberry Discovery Center and museum in town. The gift we received there was very generous—a whole pound of dried, sweetened berries! There we bought more goodies including chocolate covered berries, cranberry bratwurst, cranberry ice cream, and we even sipped cranberry-infused coffee. Jealous? Would you like some farm-fresh berries of your own? You can order from Wetherby farm and have them shipped fresh to your table!
Agritourism has been a hugely growing industry in Wisconsin’s cranberry region, or at least it was until the COVID-19 pandemic set in.
- The annual Warrens Cranberry Festival, which has pumped donations of over US$2 million into local schools and community organizations since 1973 along with an economic stimulus of over US$4 million for Monroe County annually, was cancelled this year.
- During harvest season Nodji normally leads tours for about forty buses full of people, who all return back to the farm store to buy berries and wine. It’s a huge source of the family’s annual income but has dwindled to zero this year.
Hundreds of visitors to the farm every year shared their disappointment with Nodji that these events had to be cancelled; they would miss their annual family trips! The Wetherby Wade was Nodji’s COVID-safe effort to maintain a bit of the area’s hard-earned agritourism market.
By all means visit if you’re able this weekend or plan on a visit next year during the Warrens Cranberry Festival. Reported to be the largest crafts festival in the world, the three-day festival and parade attract 45,000 visitors per day and 1300 vendors and is held the last weekend in September.
The Warrens region is perfect for growing cranberries, as they have the three key natural resources needed for efficient and effective production:
- Natural peat soil that comprises the bottom of the beds to hold moisture and not let it escape
- Lots of sand to put on top of the peat for drainage
- An abundant water supply; in the case of Warrens’ growers this comes from the east fork of the Lemonweir River
Countries on four continents are among the world’s top producers of this agricultural gem: the USA, Chile, Belarus and Tunisia. The crop is popular worldwide and eaten fresh, dried and sweetened, as well as used for juice. The cost to grow cranberries is US$35 per 100-pound barrel or 35 cents per pound. Prices, however, have been dropping over the past few years. China has historically bought huge amounts of Wisconsin cranberries: up to 25% of total production. Due to President Trump’s retaliatory tariffs, however, bulk cranberry prices this year have dropped below cost to 15-25 cents per pound. Exports to Europe have fallen as well and are limited to dried berries, thanks to the pandemic. These hardworking farmers are losing money on their crop. While historically very proud not to receive government subsidies, the past two years the government has helped the industry by purchasing berries directly for schools, hospitals, the military and other institutions at a fair price.
Trivia : How do cranberries get their name?
Sandhill cranes are a common sight in cranberry region; I absolutely love watching them, whether in flight or eating in the fields. Did you know that cranberries got their name from the sandhills? Dutch settlers and Native Americans originally called them “crane berries” because the plants in blossom look like the head and neck of a sandhill crane.
We’ve all heard of cranberry bogs, but in this part of the world I heard them called marshes and more commonly beds. Standard marsh size is five acres with a width of 80 feet. Equipment is designed for this width: pesticide and fertilizer booms reach 40 feet out over the marsh from either side for efficiency. Different varieties of berries are planted in order to spread out the work: early harvest, middle and late. Wisconsin’s biggest harvest comes the first three weeks of October.
Cranberries grow on vines in the two-to-three-foot-deep beds. The vines are perennial. On one side of a bed they are planted one direction, and on the other side the opposite, so that the vines are always facing the right way when equipment drives around the perimeter. After each fall’s harvest, the beds are emptied of berries, which rot and attract insects and disease, and frozen for the winter so that the vines can thrive again in the spring.
We went out to the Wetherby marshes for sunrise, as I wanted to take photographs of the sun’s first glistens on the bright red berries. I was so happy we went early, as just after sunrise family members showed up to begin corralling the berries. Different than raking or picking the fresh fruit, the berries in these marshes had been harrowed the night before and would today be harvested for commercial use in juice and sauce. Tractors with blower attachments and long yellow booms, along with hand blowers, were used to corral the berries towards one end of each of the marshes. I realized how “Ocean Spray” got its name watching the berries soar through the air as they were blown around! It was a whole lot of fun.
It’s encouraging to see families working hard and joyfully together, and in this region it’s not just families but the community as a whole. While they can’t share farming equipment as other farmers often do, because of the fact that they all do the same activities at the same time, I’m told that cranberry farmers freely share best practices with one another. In fact, Jim Van Wychen has invented several important pieces of machinery that he has openly shared with neighbors and colleagues instead of patenting and profiting off his expertise. He is quite the Renaissance man with a plethora of skills! Wisconsin’s 250 cranberry growers also put on a three-day cranberry school each year, where they teach about insects, weed control, and all other aspects of cranberry farming. Equipment is a major topic, as you can’t just buy cranberry farming equipment from Case or the other big dealers. Most equipment is specially made: designed and built by growers themselves. It’s what they do in the winter: maintain equipment, build new booms, refine, tinker… make their equipment better every year. As with any professional conference, we were told that the growers learn the most during the time they have between sessions, when they share their ideas.
This year’s berries, we were told, are a good size and have unusually good color. Lucky us! Nodji told us the light berries are removed from the berries picked for fresh fruit: people don’t like having white berries in their bag. Ironically, however, it’s the whites that have the most pectin, so to make jelly or jam you need those white berries for a solid gel.
Once the berries were corralled the booms were fastened into place to keep the berries where they needed to be. We then took a tour of the farm equipment on display. The first piece of equipment we saw during our tour was an original motorized picker or rake from the 1960s. Nodji’s 80-year-old cousin Chuck, who has worked with cranberries his whole life, was one of the first people in the area to own a motorized picker. He had his own beds and would also hire himself out to rake others’ marshes. Chuck explained to us that the picker or rake is used to harvest berries for fresh fruit—to be sold in grocery stores or direct from the farm. Teeth on the picker go into the vines, separating the fruit, paddles and tines lift it and then move it via conveyer belt to a small boat that is pulled alongside the picker. Less than 5% of cranberries are harvested in this way. There are cutters in the picker to catch and sever long runners; this ensures that more fruit-bearing vines will grow next year and avoids wasting energy on non-fruit-bearing runners. The picker’s motor is raised to prevent water damage.
The second machine on display was a marsh mower, with arms that move and extend in different angles to mow and trim the dikes’ edges, ditches and roadways. It takes over a week to mow the marsh. On display was also a Yanmar tractor with a harrowing attachment on front and back. The black metal rods are mounted on a spring that creates a motion to gently knock the berries off the vine so they can float to the surface. The final piece of equipment parked for display was a tractor with a 100-foot-long fertilizer or pesticide boom. The black downspouts on this arm are evenly spaced to allow all sprays to be placed exactly where needed. It takes ten hours to fertilize the entire marsh each time as they have to circle 57 beds covering almost 200 acres of vines.
The biggest excitement of the day was when the huge berry pump drove up. It was preceded by a dump truck and followed by a semi. The berry pump was invented by Jim, the owner of Wetherby Cranberry Company, and was the first pump of its kind in Wisconsin. It sucks the berries out of the bed and then uses water and air filtration to separate the cranberries—which go into the semi, from the water—which is returned to the marsh, and the trash (leaves, grass, weeds, stems, occasionally a stick)—which goes into the dump truck. The technology is based on equipment used in fish farming, when transferring fish by size from one tank to another. The cranberries that went into the semi-trailer were 97% clean of trash—stems and leaves. Some growers still elevate the berries out of the beds with an elevator, but with that technology everything including the trash goes into the semi-trailer.
A spray bar that extends out from the pump truck helps move the cranberries, and workers with push rakes and blowers also push the berries towards the pump’s funnel. With the berry pump it only takes an hour or two to harvest an entire bed.
The trailer holds 40,000 pounds of cranberries. The truck takes them to a receiving station where they’re sorted and made into sweetened, dried cranberries. The trash can be used for mulch. Various blueberry growers use it for their fields, and quite a few people from Madison come and get it to mulch their gardens.
Once cleared of all berries, the beds will remain dormant until mid-December in a typical year, though sometimes till as late as Christmas. The cranberry growers want to get a series of three cold nights in a row—10 below zero Fahrenheit or colder. The farmers will bring the water level up in the bed so it covers the tips of the vines. The water will hard freeze to a solid block during those three nights, and the vines will be protected from the winter’s cold and wind. Normally eight to twelve inches of ice block is ideal—enough to protect the vines and support the weight of a dump truck. They will attach a sand spreader to the dump truck’s tailgate and drive out onto the marsh to spread a half inch layer of sand onto the top of the ice. When the ice melts in the spring the sand will settle to the bottom of the bed, which provides the multiple benefits of: keeping the bed firm for harvest equipment, burying any dead leaves, providing good natural support for the plant roots, and punching runners into the ground so that a new upright that will produce fruit will grow. Beds that are one to five years old are sanded every year; older than that and a bed gets sand every three years.
Returning home with all the farm-fresh berries, I spent a terrific time in the kitchen and at the dinner table! Our family enjoyed homemade cranberry-orange muffins, a terrific cranberry-apple chutney, cranberries jubilee over ice cream… and we still have quite a few left for other tasty delights! Thank you, Van Wychen family!
Wetherby Cranberry Company is at 3365 Auger Rd, Warrens, WI 54666, telephone 608-378-4813, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Cost for the marsh tour and excellent explanation is $10 ($5 for children 12 and under, kids under five years old are free), and the same prices to rent waders and enter the bed. We are in a pandemic but rest assured that the Van Wychens and staff wear masks (last Saturday I didn’t see any visitors without a mask, either), promote social distancing, sanitize the wader boots and have proper handwashing and bathroom facilities. Last weekend the event was not crowded, and we felt very safe. Definitely do not miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience, or forget to order your fresh cranberries online!