Fresh cranberries could be in short supply after a bad growing season in Wisconsin, the country's top producer

Jordyn Noennig
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Flooded beds of floating cranberries in fall await to be corralled at Wetherby Cranberry Co. in Warrens. Wisconsin growers say the supply of fresh cranberries will be lower this holiday season.

Holiday food shoppers could have a hard time finding fresh cranberry fruit after Wisconsin cranberry growers yielded less crop than usual this year – nearly 100 million less pounds than an average year.

The Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association said farmers in the state, which produces more cranberries than any other state, were hit with bad weather this year.  

“When it comes to fresh fruit, we’re telling people if you see it, grab it,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. “I’d purchase my Christmas fruit now, because I don’t think it’ll be available after Thanksgiving.”

Most farmers attributed the combination of a warm April, causing the perennial cranberry fruit to bloom, and then a hard frost in May, as the biggest issue this tough growing year.

But cranberry farmers across the state dealt with different battles against Mother Nature.

“The number one problem was we got hit by hailstorms, when we were just at a blossom, in early June,” said Jamie Biegel, farmer at Dempze Cranberry Company in Wisconsin Rapids. “Because of that timing we lost blossoms and won’t get a fruit.”

Biegel said her marshes produced about 30% to 50% less cranberry than an average year.

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Cranberry growers in Wisconsin yield an annual average of 5.5 million barrels, each barrel weighing 100 pounds. Official numbers will not be out until February, but it is estimated that Wisconsin cranberry growers produced about 4.5 million barrels this growing season.

“It’s a long growing season and it’s hard to pinpoint just one problem,” said Eric Olson, owner of Olson Brothers Cranberry Company in Warrens. “This year was worse than most. One of our marshes was way down, about 40% off. The others were off about 10%. Most people I talk to were off about 20%.”

He said aside from the frost, the summer was too wet for the crop. Cranberry vines should not be oversaturated while growing, though the fruit is flooded in water once it is time for harvesting.

Bad growing seasons affect fresh fruit the most because damaged cranberries can be used for juices or sauces.

“When you’re putting fresh cranberries in a bag those are the best of the best,” Olsen said

Of all cranberry fruit, just 3% is sold fresh, according to the growers association.

When a late frost happens after the crop has began to green, growers must figure out how to keep the crop warm as it is susceptible to frostbite.

Jenna Dempze, a cousin of Beigel and production manager at Gaynor Cranberry Company, said her team watered and covered the cranberry crop to keep it warmer during the May frost.

She ended up having an average growing year, without many of the issues other farmers experienced.

“We have to be really diligent on making sure that bud is protected,” Dempze said.  “Everyone has a different view on frost science. What I do in central Wisconsin maybe won’t work for growers in northern Wisconsin.”  

Wisconsin cranberry growers have produced less than 5 million barrels each year since 2019 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but farmers say it’s too soon to call it a down trend.

“That’s the thing with agriculture. There are ups and downs and that’s just part of what it is,” Biegel said. “We just take it one year at a time.”

Jordyn Noennig covers Wisconsin culture and lifestyle. Follow her on Instagram @JordynTaylor_n. Find her on Twitter @JordynTNoennig. Call her at 262-446-6601 or email Jordyn.Noennig@jrn.com.