Corn Bagging

By VidaMaize 😉

Driving in rural southeastern Wisconsin recently I came across a sight I’ve never seen before: brown paper bags topped the stalks in a field of corn. What?! Was this the first step in early Halloween decorating? Instead of a corn maze were they going to draw jack-o-lantern faces on the bags? Playing cornhole bags is a popular yard game here; were these bags some sort of play on words? The above conjectures are a joke; I knew the bags had something to do with serious farming. So, I had to stop and ask the farmer what the paper bags were all about.

That’s how I met Jasper. He told me he was hand-pollinating the corn. I came to learn that he was basically chastity-belting corn stalks with paper bags: keeping the male and female parts of the corn under wraps to prevent errant cross-pollination. 

Jasper works for a seed breeder, and they cooperate internationally with those looking to enhance the nutritional value and hardy heritage of the grains we eat—corn, oats, sorghum, and amaranth, while increasing soil health. He introduced me to his colleague, Alexander, and their boss, Dr. Walter Goldstein, founder of the Mandaamin Institute, a non-profit agricultural research firm based in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Mandaamin is the Algonquin word for corn or the spirit of corn—a connection to so many indigenous gods of corn and fertility in this western hemisphere and a reminder of its importance in our world. Walter worked for over twenty-five years as Research Director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy prior to starting his institute. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Nutrition would seem to be the reason we eat. We all want to be healthy, and we love good tasting food. Yet, many of us grumble that the fruits and vegetables we eat today don’t taste as good as we remember, and our bodies suffer because food doesn’t contain the nutritional quality it used to. Our soils are degraded, and mass production of food today requires expensive chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and machinery. We have a running joke in our family that we will all show up on our cousins’ low-tech farm in Indiana after the zombie apocalypse. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, the supply chain breaks down quite easily, and secure, healthy food sources are paramount to our survival. The Mandaamin Institute’s program is the result of  49 growing seasons in Wisconsin, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.  The objective: to naturally breed corn that is more nutritious, efficient and that is farmed in ways that leave our planet healthier. 

This is not only good news for our soil, water, and those of us who eat corn, but also for the animals who consume corn. He and his team discovered nutritional value traits hidden in old land race corn back in 2004, and nitrogen-fixing corn in 2009. The photos on their website of the difference in the bright orange yolks of the eggs laid by chickens who eat Mandaamin corn vs. GMO corn, and in the color of the skin of the chickens producing such carotene-rich eggs, is remarkable. They’ve produced nitrogen-efficient or “fixing” corn as shown in the photo below and have naturally nitrogen-rich corn varieties that have the inherent smarts to produce bacteria that are partially consumed by the plant, feeding it with minerals and proteins. Those bacteria encourage the plant’s roots to grow numerous and large root hairs. The plant ejects that bacterium into the soil, enriching it, and then takes the bacteria in once again with new roots. Those bacteria make their way into the new seed and are stored there  for the next generation. Thus, this corn is itself both a farmer and a seed breeder! Mandaamin also has varieties of corn that resist pollination from GMO pollen, a huge hurdle in organic and biodynamic farming.

“Big agrichemical farming uses lots of chemical nitrogen fertilizer but hardly uses crop rotations. Their practices deplete the fertility and nitrogen content of soils. Those nitrogen fertilizers contribute greatly to pollution of our water and the ocean and become potent greenhouse gasses. We have created a corn that may help to reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Such N efficient corn may be a game-changer globally. Large agribusiness is striving to create N efficient corn through genetic engineering and patenting. We are striving to be first with a natural option. We believe that patenting natural nitrogen efficient/fixing corn is unethical. Therefore, we are sharing our research results with the public.” 

—Mandaamin website

Amazingly to me, Walter told me that in breeding ancient corn for modern soils, he has discovered that his nutritionally rich, hardy, soil-enhancing corn grows BETTER without fertilizers—including without manure! While that runs counter to gardening 101 principles that even I know, it is exciting stuff as these heritage plants naturally morph and reposition their own genomes in a relationship with the grower and the environment. They would sure seem to be just the seed I want on my cousins’ farm post-apocalypse!

Interestingly and typically, in my initial drive-by I had only noticed brown paper bags on the corn stalks—tassel bags. Visiting on foot the following day, we saw there were also white bags covering the ears (shoot bags), and learned that Jasper and Alexander use green and red tassel bags as well. The tassel bag colors are code for the process being used. Brown bags for their purposes indicate self-fertilizing (pollen from that same stalk is shaken onto the corn silk). Green bags are for sib mating sister plants in the row. Red bags designate crossing or cross-pollinating. The white shoot bags are used to cover the ear/silk so that it is not pollinated until that process purposefully occurs.

The process that we observed in the field, to my limited knowledge and observation skills, was this:

  1. As shoots develop and before tassels mature, its shoots are covered with a white waxed bag to prevent the silks from being pollinated. The bag must have plenty of room in it for the husks/silks/ear to grow and not pop the bag off. Interesting note: each pollinated silk produces a kernel of corn!
  2. Once a tassel matures sufficiently and develops anthers (pollen), it is covered with a bag that is tightly closed to contain the pollen. Jasper and Alexander used a staple gun to close the bags. There is usually a 2-to-3-day window when pollinating can occur, and it must be done in dryness.
  3. At the same time as the tassels are bagged, the white shoot bags are removed, and the husks and silks are trimmed. The shoot bag is then quickly replaced, to limit exposure to airborne pollen.
  4. The following day, the tassels are shaken into the tassel bag to collect the pollen, and the bag carefully removed. The shoot bag is removed to reveal an overnight growth of silks ready and waiting for pollination. For the self-pollination we witnessed, the pollen is sprinkled on the shoot (ear/silk) of that same stalk. The numbered tassel bag is then stapled securely over the pollinated shoot.
  5. Once the silks have dried and kernels have started to develop, the shoot bags will be removed.

They want to breed “synchronous plants,” those that develop pollen and silks at the same time. If a plant doesn’t, it will be ignored. Their plants are all organic, though they are not officially certified. The ears will be hand harvested.

I can tell you from personal experience that once that pollen gets shaken off the tassels, the bees come out in droves! They are very, very excited to smell all that fresh pollen, so it’s a good thing the shoots get covered again quickly and tightly.

Each of the paper bags has a date on it, so that when the ear is harvested, they will know when it was pollinated. Each range in the field is numbered, as is each row, and there are tags indicating those locations. Thus, it’s very easy to track progress.

I watched Jasper discard a shoot whose bag had fallen off and its silks exposed to the air; that’s no good for their testing purposes. The corn plant puts most of its energy into the top shoot or ear, so that is the one that they pay most attention to when covering. However, Mandaamin is working on corn that is more productive, minimum two ears per stalk, so they cover the shoots they see growing. I found it sad to learn that most corn produced today only has one ear per stalk! Very different from my youth. I was told that is why it’s now planted so much closer together than it was when I was a child.

I also watched him perform “surgery.” Jasper found a shoot whose silks were not exposed, and he had to cut back the husk a bit for them to gain freedom. He told me this is not ideal, but necessary. He then covered the shoot for pollination the following day.

Another memorable thing I witnessed was one ear of corn on the tassel of the plant! What? Even I know that’s not “right!” Turns out this was a hermaphrodite, produced by a sucker plant that lives off a main plant. I thought that was cool. Jasper says they leave those be, not covering them, as they are not useful for their research purposes.Another memorable thing I witnessed was one ear of corn on the tassel of the plant! What? Even I know that’s not “right!” Turns out this was a hermaphrodite, produced by a sucker plant that lives off a main plant. I thought that was cool. Jasper says they leave those be, not covering them, as they are not useful for their research purposes.

Finally, I learned that my beloved huitlacoche, that corn fungus that Mexicans cook up so deliciously and that I love in a cream sauce over chicken, grows here, too. Here it is called “smut” and is a sign of a corn plant out of balance—one which cannot control the fungus Ustilago, which naturally infects corn.

Mandaamin’s process of emergent evolution selects the best plants and grows them under hardship conditions: sandy soil, in the gravel left behind in a quarry, under severe drought. Locally here in southeast Wisconsin they experiment with about 20 acres each season; only three to four are hand-pollinated, the remainder are seed trials. They partner with traditional and organic farmers and a medium sized seed company called Foundation Organic Seed. They collaborate with Professor James White and his lab at Rutgers and with North Carolina State University. They do not use fertilizers but occasionally spread manure to maintain soil fertility. They have published their research in peer-reviewed scientific journals and base their approach on feedback from farmers obtained at the turn of the millennium in workshops with the Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Minnesota Organic Growers, and the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference.

Most of Mandaamin’s seed of old-time corn comes from the USDA, which he tells us has a fantastic collection of corn. The plant introduction station in Ames, Iowa is where Walter usually goes to get corn from anywhere in the world. Oats, wheat, and other small grains he obtains from the repository in Idaho. “These centers and their plant introduction system are one of the best things about this country. They have rich sets of seed varieties from all over the world, and very supportive and helpful people who help us identify races and their traits to aid our research. They also gift seed to people all over the world.”

Walter showed me corn that’s part Mexican chapalote—the oldest corn in North America, which they’ve bred for nitrogen efficiency. Mandaamin has winter nurseries in Puerto Rico and Chile, so breeding continues year-round. This is not seasonal labor. Jasper, for example, works year-round, working on research and development and preparing seed for planting.

Besides an ongoing quest for funding to continue operations, and talent committed to pursuing biodynamic and organic corn breeding, Mandaamin faces the dilemma of how to get their seed used by farmers while protecting their discoveries from the opportunism of other seed breeders who could pirate their hard work. They want to get their work out there, but don’t want to be stupid. They refuse to patent their work, though they do license it; they rely on an honor system based on the ability to genetically track their seed.

Humans have been cultivating new plant varieties to suit their purposes since farming began—plants suitable to local climates, flowers with new colors, drought- or pest-resistant crops, higher-yield varietals. It makes sense that we would care for plants in a way that makes them more of what we want and need. There are at least two ways of doing this.

  1. Hybrids are developed in the field using natural, low-tech methods. Hybridization from cross-pollination happens naturally in the wild. Classic open-pollination plant-breeding takes six to ten generations. Modern controlled crossing takes only one generation (F1). A belief frequently underlying this process is of a two-way relationship between the grower and the plant; one takes care of the other.
  2. Genetically modified (GM) varieties are created in a lab in combination with field work using complex technology such as gene splicing, which can mix genetic material from differing kingdoms such as bacteria and plants. GM seeds are also frequently implanted with pesticides or fertilizers. A belief frequently underlying this process is of a one-way relationship: plants provide sustenance.

Corn is a wild grass that has been selectively bred by humans since its domestication in Mexico over 10,000 years ago! That wild grass—teosinte—produced only 5-10 kernels per stalk, while modern corn can have over 500 kernels! Corn today is a staple food for billions of people worldwide and a source of livelihood for millions of farmers in hundreds of countries. It has hundreds of varieties with numerous colors and traits. Corn feeds humans as well as livestock, can be turned into ethanol, used for brewing beer, turned into high-fructose syrup, cooking oil, and even bio-plant-based plastics

The paper bags in the corn field are a way of testing and hybridizing corn in a controlled manner. Seed breeders like Jasper combine the scientific method with natural, simple yet very labor-intensive techniques to enhance the nutritional value of our food and improve soil health. Their techniques provide a natural alternative to GMO. 

“Contemporary industrial agriculture concentrates power, land and wealth in the hands of a few large corporations or corporate family farms. Contemporary farming is wiping out diversity (just the opposite of biodynamic farming) in the name of short-term profit. It will, we believe, ultimately undermine humanity’s ability to sustain a large population. Despite the argument that we need contemporary technology to feed the world, our founders instinctively knew large amounts of inorganic fertilizer would pollute the groundwater and the effects of pesticides on the environment would also affect insect, animal, and human health. 

Organic and biodynamic agriculture blend the older ways of farming while using modern research to showcase the best in agriculture and the best in human nature.”

—Michael Fields Agricultural Institute website

The problem with both F1 hybrids and GM plant varieties is that they create a dependency on seed companies because growers must purchase new seed every year. Newly developed GM formulas and hybrids are licensed for one-time use: farmers buy seed to plant yet cannot harvest productive seed from the crops they grow to produce more food. Our agricultural industrial complex has broken nature to recoup its research and development costs and make money, making it impossible to reproduce such seed naturally. In the case of Mandaamin, the farmers have demanded hybrids rather than open-pollinated varieties because they want the traits that hybrids provide.

Mandaamin is a labor of love, a non-profit that is looking out for our common good. They need donations and investment to continue their research. Please donate via their website or this link if you are able. If you know like-minded breeders or farmers, or are interested in a possible partnership, please contact Walter (+1-262-248-1533 or via email to wgoldstein@mandaamin.org) for more information on partnerships and support.

How can people learn about this type of farming? Walter told us that the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, some provinces in Canada) has a farmer-breeder club. Most university programs sadly do not teach this type of farming; working and apprenticing are the only way to really learn. He would like to organize a national association and start an educational and training program through that association. 

This method of agriculture is truly a blend of art and science; it represents a dedication to the understanding of being one with the planet. I am grateful to these brown paper bags in the field and to the men who tend them; it gives me hope for our planet’s and our future health. 

I am better off by having met these men, and I thank them for it. Through them I learned that I grew up just miles away from the oldest biodynamic farm in the USA—the Zinniker farm! I know we have at least two respected research institutes here locally, aimed at improving our health and that of our planet via better farming. I learned about an awesome sustainable farming school run by an incredible Norwegian immigrant to this area: FarmWise Education‘s founder and Walter’s wife, Bente Goldstein. And I sincerely hope that some positive connection and collaboration will come from this article.

Bogging Rocks!

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: 

  1. Natural peat soil that comprises the bottom of the beds to hold moisture and not let it escape
  2. Lots of sand to put on top of the peat for drainage
  3. 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 wetherby@freshcranberries.com. 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!

 

Haziz and Our New Iranian Friends

DSC_4447I am in Dubai to present at a conference directed by the author of Cultural Detective Arab Gulf, Abdulhamied Alromaithy. His wife, Dr. Layla Al Bloushi, will moderate my panel. It’s my first time here, so I’m excited. Today was my tenth anniversary cancer-free, and we planned to celebrate by going to the top of the Burj Khalifa. It was beautiful.

In the morning, however, we walked around the old part of the city. Greg and I were fascinated by the organized chaos of the port. Boats were anchored three to six deep. How in the world did they get out once they were loaded? Packages were stacked everywhere! How did they keep track of what was where? Aren’t there waves in the Gulf? Wasn’t the loading precarious? Here the longshoreman show up in pickup trucks, SUVs and small trucks, to hand-load packages of textiles, boxes of spices, and many, many appliances to be shipped around the Gulf. We even saw electrical transformers.

The boats themselves were absolutely gorgeous, wooden structures brightly painted with filigree and other details. They looked very old. And the men who were working them were so very welcoming, cheerful, hardworking and happy.

The highlight of our day serendipitously became the invitation we received to board and tour an Iranian shipping vessel at the port in Dubai Creek. Our visit was accompanied by tea, lunch, shisha, and some great non-verbal communication that bridged my non-existent Farsi with our hosts’ non-existent English. Thankfully a spice trader helped us out with some translation…

More via Haziz and Our New Iranian Friends

Burlington Garden Tour

P1110353©Four days before the worst flood ever in the history of Burlington, we had a bright, clear, sunny day—perfect for a garden tour in benefit of the local garden club.

Foliage was a myriad shades of green and flowering in bright, lush colors, as we’d had plenty of rain (but not yet too much).

The first garden we toured was a prayer garden at Saint Charles Church, built by a graduating class of students in 2011. It was incredibly well thought out, with loads of clever sayings and decorations. The garden has been very well maintained. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

We visited a public school with an ivy-covered inner courtyard—Karcher. The windows between the ivy appeared to be sunglass-covered eyes looking up towards heaven.

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We all loved the house on Bohner’s Lake. You enter from the top of a steep slope, proceed through a “secret” garden down to the pool level, from there to a picnic level, and finally down to lake level. Definitely relaxing, with lots of shade and great views!

Some of the gardens had wonderful water features, or creative decorations. Others had the most vibrantly colored plants!

Most everyone’s favorite was the last stop on the seven garden tour, “Rust in Peace.” OMG, is it beautiful! Melissa, the owner, has collected a wide variety of antiques and very artistically arranges them in her garden. Looking at her displays from any angle gives you spectacular views. She has grouped quite a few things: license plates, a garden of old water pumps, bowling balls, bird houses, milk cans, gas pumps, colanders, bicycles… The property is huge, with a pond down below the house. Because there was so very much to see, it was more exciting and interesting than peaceful. And you can only imagine how much work the garden requires!

Thanks to the Burlington Garden Club and the hosts, my cousin, her friend and I enjoyed an incredibly wonderful afternoon. Thank you all! The hard work, creativity and love of nature of Midwesterners were on full display!

Birthplace Flooding

I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life among southeastern Wisconsin’s dairy farms, corn and bean fields. My birthplace is also home to a large Nestle’s chocolate plant. When I was a kid, it was the world’s biggest, and the whole town smelled of chocolate; how was one not to fall in love with chocolate, smelling it everyday?

We arrived in town last Friday to visit family. Friday night it stormed, and again on Sunday. We had a big storm Tuesday night, with six inches of rain. Then, on Wednesday, the Fox River overflowed at least two dams, one in East Troy and another in Burlington, rising three feet higher than any previous flood in history. Flood level is 11 feet, and we crested at 16.5. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes, and thousands of acres of farmland were flooded. The whole of downtown Burlington closed—businesses guarded by sandbags to save what they could.

Fortunately I have heard of no one killed; that’s where I so appreciate the communication systems and the public service workers in small town USA. Governor Walker quickly declared a state of emergency, so insurance, federal and state funds will hopefully help people recover financially from property damage and loss of income.

Our corn fields turned into corn paddies, reminding me of the rice paddies in Japan—though in that case the crop is intended to sit in water. Sadly, flooding is not great for corn or beans.

Our local baseball diamond is most definitely out of commission for a while.

Our city park became a lake. Rescue workers launched their boats in the former parking lot.

And the ground floor of our beautiful new Veteran’s Memorial building was filled with several feet of water.

It was very difficult to get anywhere, as so many roads and bridges were closed. Thousands of homes lost power throughout the area.

Please keep these hardworking, friendly people in your thoughts and prayers. Let’s hope the power comes back on soon and that recovery can proceed smoothly.