Kicking off the harvest at the Warrens Cranberry Festival
Each fall, thousands migrate to Warrens, Wisconsin, a little burg in Monroe County, home to the highest concentration of cranberry farms in the state.
While many make the trek to attend the world's largest cranberry festival which touts parades, foods spotlighting the bright red fruit and three miles of market booths, the real star of the show at the festival is the cranberry itself and the farmers that produce them.
A staple at the Warrens Cranberry Festival, now in its 49th year, are the tours of the cranberry marshes and a up close look at the harvest itself.
Harvest season is underway for early varieties of the state’s official fruit, and nearly 150,000 visitors were able to see equipment used to harvest the state's cranberry crop. Wisconsin currently products 63% of the nation's supply of cranberries and more than half of the world's supply.
According to the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee, Wisconsin’s cranberry growers are expecting a solid 2022 crop at 5.2 million barrels based on the crop projections.
While many people have seen images of cranberries floating in pools of water, cranberry grower Amy Gebhardt of Beltz Cranberry Co., explained to visitors that cranberries grow in marshes. However, when it's time to harvest the berries, cranberry bogs are flooded with water, and berries released from the vines float to the top due to small pockets of air inside the berry.
Gebhardt not only answered questions during the walking tour on the cranberry marsh at the festival, but also highlighted many ways to include cranberries year-round in an individual’s diet.
“There’s all the health benefits, of course, alongside having a high antioxidant level, but they also taste good,” said Gebhardt, adding that her kids drink cranberry juice almost every morning. “It’s truly a family growing business and we’re very proud of it."
In addition to juice, cranberry treats come in all forms, from cranberry cream puffs to cranberry scented candles.
By the numbers
During the three-day festival, the tiny community of Warrens – home to around 360 residents – hosts more than 150,000 visitors a year who travel to celebrate the cranberry community.
Initially, the event began in 1973 as a way to use leftover money from the Warrens community centennial celebration. Deanna Donaldson, president of the board of directors of the Warrens Cranberry Festival, said the rest is history.
“They thought, let’s find some way to spend this money, but promote the community,” she said. “With an abundance of cranberry growers around here they thought, well let’s promote cranberries. Nobody is doing that.”
Monies raised from the event have found their way back to the community. Approximately $3 million has been used to fund scholarships to school equipment.
There aren’t as many festivals that are as large as the Warrens Cranberry Festival, Donaldson said. Three miles of the community is occupied by 850 arts and crafts vendors, 350 farmers market type vendors, and 100 food booths. While the weather was not as sunny this year, crowds of people made the pilgrimage back to cranberry country to attend the annual festival.
Future grower, big berry
Ava Nemitz, who could take her place as an eighth generation cranberry grower, has the touch in producing hefty fruit. She easily won the Biggest Berry Contest, growing a Crimson King variety cranberry tipping the scale at a whopping 6.0914 grams. While she didn’t share the secret of her horticulture prowess topping 30 other entries, she says she’s been participating in the contest for over five years alongside her sisters.
During the festival, Nemitz could be found working at the Cranberry Homemakers booth where they were selling cranberry-related products like bread, cookies and donuts. The funds that are raised will then be contributed to those in need in the area. As a future cranberry grower, she’s already getting a start in helping out her community.
Founder eyes golden anniversary
The most ardent cranberry enthusiast in attendance at the Warrens Cranberry Festival is June Potter, one of the founders of the annual celebration. This year she served as one of the 2022 parade marshals.
Begun as a way to celebrate the community many years ago, organizers are already making plans for the special 50th anniversary festival next year.
“We’re anticipating a really big reunion with the different groups of people who have served over the years,” said Potter, referring members of 'cranberry royalty' reuniting.
The Warrens Cranberry Festival not only brings many visits into the area, it raises awareness of the industry itself and its importance to the Badger state. Wisconsin leads cranberry production and contributes over 7,200 jobs and approximately $330 million to the state’s economy each year, according to the Warrens Cranberry Festival website.