Cranberries are king in Wood County

Wisconsin State Farmer
Heidi Slinkman

Cranberries are king in Wood County, Wisconsin, and local growers want the public to know all about this thriving industry during 2018 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days July 10-12.

Wisconsin accounts for more than 60 percent of U.S. cranberry production. And the U.S. contributes a similar amount to world output. Wood County alone accounts for about 9 percent of the world’s cranberry production, said Matt Lippert, University of Wisconsin-Extension Wood County agricultural agent and Farm Technology Days executive secretary. 

Pictured is a Wood County cranberry marsh.

Lippert said there are about 5,400 acres of cranberries and approximately 100 growers in Wood County. And according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the farm-gate value of Wood County cranberries is about $40 million or 40 percent of the county’s total agricultural value. 

Cranmoor township west of Wisconsin Rapids is the heart of the county’s cranberry industry. Lippert said cranberries have been harvested there for more than 150 years. But today the ruby-red crop grows in more than half of Wood County townships. 

Once called “crane berry” by settlers because of its blossom resembles the Sandhill Crane, the little red berry is Wisconsin’s official state fruit -- and the state’s No. 1 fruit crop in both size and economic value.

Once called “crane berry” by settlers because of its blossom resembles the Sandhill Crane, the little red berry is Wisconsin’s official state fruit.

Lippert said cranberries – traditionally a bog crop -- have moved upland. Growers now have the ability to lift water with pumps and return it to reservoirs.

At Farm Technology Days cranberry growers intend to lay to rest cranberry misnomers, Lippert said. Contrary to popular belief cranberries do not grow in water. Instead the perennial low-running vines are flooded with water to aid in harvest. When a bed is flooded, berries float to the surface where they’re corralled and harvested with equipment. The crop is also flooded in the winter and encased in ice for frost protection. 

Cranberries are removed from vines in 2014. Near-ideal growing conditions this year in the state are expected to lead to an above-average crop yield.

Mini marsh attention-getter

In the Marshfield Clinic Health Systems Innovation Square, a mini marsh will be constructed so show-goers can compare flooded and dry beds. Lippert said the mini marsh is modeled after Walworth County’s miniature mockup of Lake Geneva and Kewaunee County’s mini replica of Lake Michigan. The two counties hosted the show in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

The 10-foot by 20-foot, dry growing bog will include a mulched path around the perimeter so visitors can kneel for closer inspection. An equal-size bog will be dug into the ground and flooded. Cranberries donated by Gardner Cranberry of Pittsville will be boomed to one end. Visitors can pull on boots to walk into the bog to get a feel for what growers experience during their watery harvests. 

Ben Tilberg

Ben Tilberg of Arpin is a member of the Wood County Farm Technology Days’ executive committee. He’s an agricultural scientist with Ocean Spray at Babcock. Tilberg conducts cranberry research and works with Ocean Spray grower-cooperators in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. 

Tilberg said high-school students from Auburndale, Marshfield and Pittsville were bused to Evergreen Nursery in Sturgeon Bay in 2017 to learn how cranberries are started. The nursery is growing potted cranberries which will be used to make the mini marsh. The vines were donated by Cutler Cranberry near City Point. Tilberg said there’ll be a small army of cranberry-grower volunteers ready to answer the public’s questions about their crop-production methods and uses of ultra-healthy berry. There’ll also be many pieces of cranberry equipment to see. 

“Growers fabricate a lot of their own equipment,” The notes. “The industry is innovative and continues to change. It’s an exciting industry.”

Fourth-generation grower fired up

Heidi Slinkman is a fourth-generation cranberry grower and business manager at Gaynor Cranberry Co. in Wisconsin Rapids. Her family has been growing cranberries in Cranmoor township since 1876. She’s chairing the cranberry exhibit that’s part of Innovation Square and is excited about the depth and breadth of the show’s cranberry emphasis. 

Slinkman said cranberry food and beverage manufacturers are donating samples which can be tasted during Farm Technology Days. There’ll also be special guests to greet visitors such as the industry’s cranberry mascot, cranberry royalty and Vince Biegel, a former Wisconsin Badger now Green Bay Packer linebacker. Beigel grew up on a cranberry marsh in Wood County. 

Slinkman said there’ll also be cranberry-related educational presentations in the UW-Extension tent. And food tents on the grounds will feature dried-and-sweetened cranberries, cranberry juice and a cranberry mustard condiment to showcase the fruit’s versatility.

Conservation another component

Cranberry growers rely on additional acres of support land much of which serves as a sanctuary for wildlife including many birds.

"A cranberry bed is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The amount of bird life here is incredible. We see everything from bald and golden eagles to whooping and Sand Hill cranes, owls, loons and songbirds," Slinkman said. "We take pride in keeping our farms healthy because we  are directly tied to the environment."

There’ll also be hands-on activities for children including one that explores the technique of sanding cranberries to promote upright growth and vine vitality.

Wood County cranberry growers on hand will have a lot to talk about, Slinkman said. For instance, 2017 was the 23rd consecutive year Wisconsin led the country in cranberry production. And the industry supports about 4,000 jobs in Wisconsin.

Looking for information on the state's cranberry production? Feel free to ask members of the committee (clockwise from bottom left) Heidi Slinkman, Stephanie Bennett, Mary Smedbron and Nicki Ryner.

"It's not just the farmer that reaps the benefits of the cranberry marsh, it's also those who we employ, manufacturing plants and other facilities," she said.

Slinkman says the miniature bog, cranberry food products, educational exhibits and ability to share information about the county's cranberry production and their livelihoods is a great opportunity for both growers and consumers.

“We do such a great job with our imagery with pictures during harvest that we need to share our other messages because cranberries can be eaten throughout the year, not just at harvest time."

To view cranberry recipes, visit XXXXXXXXX

Colleen Kottke contributed to this story