What comes to mind when you think of cranberries? Do you see a juice commercial with two
gentlemen wearing hip waders in a cranberry bog? Are you imagining a Thanksgiving feast with cranberry sauce served alongside turkey and mashed potatoes? For me, I think of Wisconsin history, heritage and health.
Cranberries became Wisconsin’s official state fruit in 2004, but our history with the tart berries dates back to the 1800s. Cranberries were called “crane berries” by settlers because their blossoms looked like sandhill cranes. Commercial cranberry cultivation started near Berlin, Wis. around 1860. The early marshes were ditches dug around native vines. Pioneers in the industry faced frost, insects, weeds, diseases and fires. After generations of improving growing methods, today’s cranberry growers have learned to handle those hazards.
Nodji Van Wychen, a third-generation grower, told me cranberries need four natural resources. The first is peat soil for the base of cranberry beds so they can hold moisture. Secondly, they must have sand to help drain the roots. Ample water supply is also crucial for irrigation in droughts or dry summers. They also use water for frost protection in the late spring and early fall, to wet harvest cranberries, and to protect the cranberry buds and vines in the winter with a blanket of 8 to 12 inches of ice. The final ingredient: sweat! Cranberry growers work hard and dedicate their lives to providing a safe, wholesome crop for consumers.
While giving me a tour of her marsh, Nodji explained how growers improve the industry. With only 250 cranberry growers in Wisconsin, they often have to be innovative and build equipment that is not readily available. Cranberries require stringent water management plans that protect resources for the future generation of growers. With partnerships and research in the UW-System, chemical use for cranberries dropped by 50 percent in 20 years. That decrease not only saves growers money but also helps protect the land.
Nodji and her family operate Wetherby Cranberry Company. Wetherby was founded in 1903 and started packing fresh cranberries in 1905. For their family, growing cranberries is more than a job. It is their way of life. Nodji and her husband, Jim, are happy to have family continue the success of their marsh with children and grandchildren becoming part of their story. Wetherby is one of only a handful of companies in the United States that sells fresh and processed cranberries directly to the consumer.
Cranberries are grown in sandy bogs and marshes on 21,000 acres across 20 counties in Wisconsin. It takes four to five years for a cranberry bed to have a full fruit crop. While growers can use water to protect buds and berries from cold temperatures, the weather can affect cranberry color. Nodji said in September, growers want sunny days and cold nights to bring out the bright red color which shows natural sugar content. However, she personally likes to add pale cranberries to her jellies or sauces because they have more natural pectin that can help thicken the final product.
During harvest, cranberry marshes are flooded with water. The tiny, tart berries have pockets of air that bring them to the surface where they can be collected by harvesting equipment from September to October. There are different varieties of cranberries. Early cranberries are typically processed. Mid-season cranberries are all-purpose and can be sold fresh or processed. Late cranberries keep well and are enjoyed fresh.
Wisconsin is expected to harvest 5.9 million barrels of cranberries in 2018, according to the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee. Last year, cranberry production totaled 5.37 million barrels. Wisconsin ranked first in the nation for its cranberry crop producing 64 percent of the nation’s total with a value of $156 million.
Does this change what you see when you think of cranberries? They may be in more places than you think. Cranberries are ingredients in more than 1,000 food and beverage products on the market. About 20 percent of cranberries are enjoyed during the holiday season, but that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy cranberry products all year. Cranberries are among the highest of all fruits in antioxidants which are important for healthy bodies! You can find inspiration for ways to use cranberries at wiscran.org.