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The Cranberry Ecosystem

An ecosystem is any group of living and non-living things which interact with each other. Types of ecosystems include rainforests, tide pools, deserts, coral reefs, and one I only recently learned about—cranberry marshes! All crops occupy an ecosystem, by definition, in the space that they grow, but the cranberry marsh ecosystem expands well beyond the borders of the actual cranberry bed.

Wisconsin produces more than half of the entire nation’s cranberry supply each year, so it makes sense that we would be the host to the world’s largest cranberry festival! I recently attended the Warrens Cranberry Festival, held annually the last full weekend of September. In a town with fewer than 600 permanent residents, 120,000 people pass through over the three-day weekend to celebrate our state fruit. Visitors can enjoy cranberries in hundreds of different ways including getting suited-up and wading into marsh waters for photo opportunities, visiting the Discover Cranberry Museum, or taking a walking tour of a cranberry marsh. Learning and seeing how the cranberry marshes operate was one of my favorite parts of my visit.

A cranberry marsh includes the bed, where the vines grow and the cranberries are produced. It also includes “natural or man-made wetlands, woodlands, uplands, and reservoirs,” according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association (WSCGA). Wild cranberries are native to wetlands in central or northern Wisconsin and many cultivated cranberry marshes are in areas with similar growing environments. The surrounding areas produce the unique ecosystem that exists within a cranberry marsh, whether wild or cultivated.

Eagles, swans, herons, ducks, butterflies, turtles, turkey, deer, otters, butterflies, water lilies, lady slippers, pines, and spruces all call Wisconsin’s cranberry marsh ecosystems home. Cranberry wetlands are just like natural wetlands in their ability to not only provide this habitat, but also to provide water storage and purification, and help control potential flood waters. The same waters that provide those habitats are also beneficial for the cranberries throughout the year.

When harvest time comes around, many growers utilize some of the water from their wetlands to flood their cranberry beds. Each cranberry has four pockets of air inside them, causing them to float, making harvest more efficient! Using specialized equipment, growers carefully traverse their fields, gently knocking the ripe berries off their vines and up to the water’s surface. They will then be corralled, collected, processed, packaged, and shipped to homes across the world.

The water is left in the cranberry beds over the winter to form a layer of ice over the plants, protecting the vines from freezing. Once the spring thaw comes and the vines are ready to start producing for the year, the water from the beds is returned to the wetlands, just in time for the migratory birds, amphibians, mammals, and insects to return to the wetlands!

My visit to Warrens Cranberry Fest facilitated the discovery of so many new pieces of information about cranberries. The excitement of the people who produce, process, or simply enjoy cranberries sure was contagious, and it is no wonder why families return to the festival year after year. If you want to be inspired to try a new food, hear directly from growers and producers, or see firsthand how the cranberry became a Wisconsin specialty—the Warrens Cranberry Fest is the place to do it!


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