Owen Rock Cranberries hosts state summer cranberry field day
As one of Wisconsin's newer cranberry marshes, Owen Rock Cranberries - located in northeastern Adams County approximately 25 miles southeast of Wisconsin Rapids - has benefitted from the numerous educational opportunities offered by the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association (WSCGA).
"We have been able to participate in past summer field days and other educational events provided by the association," said Mark Mahoney, managing partner of Owen Rock Cranberries and WSCGA vice-president. "We appreciate the growers who hosted the summer field day in previous years and are proud to be able to return the favor by hosting this year's event."
One of the first upland marshes in central Wisconsin, in 1989 the property was converted from cornfields and a hedgerow to cranberry beds ranging in size from 2.5 to four acres. "A year later 56 acres of cranberries were put into production," recalled Jim Bielmeier, who currently manages daily operation of the marsh.
He acknowledged that it took some time to control weeds on the property, adjust to the high pH soils and regulate water because a portion of the land is naturally wetter.
Bielmeier credits former owner Gary Vanatta with helping him learn the intricacies of growing cranberries. "This is a totally different game than row crops," he smiled.
Owen Rock Cranberries - which, incidentally, got its name from a large sandstone boulder about a mile north of the property known as Owen's Rock - has grown to producing 104 acres of Stevens, Pilgrim, McFarlin and Le Munyon varieties of cranberries.
"Approximately 10 years ago my father-in-law, Joe Tate, and I became aware of an investment opportunity that just happened to be this marsh," said Waukesha County businessman Mark Mahoney, who is now managing partner of the cranberry operation.
"We knew nothing about growing cranberries and made the investment on the advice of a friend and with the hope that the market had reached bottom and that upside potential would provide a nice return," Mahoney explained.
Tate and his three daughters (one of whom is Mark's wife, Casey) formed a limited family partnership. "The investment has worked out well for us," Mahoney said. "Looking back, it was about the best time in the past 30 years to get in. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to become a part of a great Wisconsin industry and participate in something I've really come to enjoy."
Along with the 24 acres of new plantings, during the past 10 years the operation also has added new tractors, an excavator, dump trucks and other equipment, Mahoney noted.
"We've erected new buildings for equipment storage and installed underground irrigation in all beds. We've also increased our water storage capacity by expanding an existing reservoir, constructing a second one and by adding lift pump stations," he remarked.
Old irrigation engines were replaced with more fuel-efficient units. A Hortau system with Irrolis software was installed to monitor temperature, moisture and weather conditions; it is linked to the irrigation system to provide the capability for remote starting and auto-starting of the system.
"In the past, we probably watered twice as much as we do with this new system," commented Bielmeier. "The system also makes it easier to collect information on water use and provide that information to the DNR. Because the sensors also monitor air temperature, the system can be configured to automatically start the irrigation pumps at 34 degrees Fahrenheit to protect the plants against frost."
Along with Mark Mahoney and Jim Bielmeier, the Owen Rock management team includes assistant manager Jake Bielmeier, who's responsible for equipment maintenance, and Jeff Monk and Thomas Droste who perform a variety of duties involved with marshes general operations.
Cathy Bielmeier, Jim's wife, handles various administrative duties.
Looking to the future, the Owen Rock management team is continually looking for new ways to increase efficiency. This year they're experimenting with a low-tech strategy that utilizes hives of bumblebees, along with hives of honey bees the business had been leasing, to help pollinate the cranberry blossoms.
"We're also focused on growing production through expansion and improved yields," Mahoney said. "I would like people to regard Owen Rock Cranberries as good growers, good neighbors and good stewards of our resources."