Bringing tech to the cranberry marsh
TOWN OF CRANMOOR
John Moss talks about cranberries, technology and life choices as his pickup truck rolls slowly over the sandy soils of the family farm west of Wisconsin Rapids.
Just a few years ago the 31-year-old was working in the software industry in the Fox Valley but opted to trade that career for one working on the family cranberry farm. He's been back on the marsh for the past two years.
'I was in the software industry for eight to 10 years and I realized the reason I originally got into technology was because I grew up on the farm always thinking about how we could do things better,' John Moss said. 'I had kind of lost sight of that as I got further into my technology career. The reason I really started enjoying all this was because I wanted to create my own technology and use it to improve our family farm.'
With a family of his own, and a family history on the farm stretching back more than a century, he made the transition from a career in software to cranberries — and managed to blend both.
'I had grown up working here so I already knew what was involved in the business,' the St. Norbert College graduate said. 'I think it helped that I went away from the farm and came back, I was able to bring in an outside perspective… I wouldn't otherwise have been able to bring.'
Officials and educators from many sectors are working to increase awareness of careers and jobs in the agriculture, stressing the field extends well beyond the farm gate to include areas ranging from marketing and agronomy to soil and plant science.
One out of nine jobs – 413,500 – in Wisconsin is related to agriculture, according to figures from the University of Wisconsin Extension Service.
'In talking with a lot of students, I don't think they fully comprehend what's involved in food production and the general opportunities that exist across the spectrum in growing and moving food to the consumer,' said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.
Moss plans to move into the ownership role Elm Lake Cranberry Co. in the Town of Cranmoor in the next several years. The operation, owned by his parents, grows about 150-acres of cranberries destined for Ocean Spray for use in juice concentrates and dried cranberries, also called craisins.
'Who knows where the market is going to, but if you stay hard working and adaptable to what the consumer would want in cranberry products, I don't see any issue in having a flourishing business going forward,' Moss said. 'There's a lot of potential overseas with untapped markets for cranberry products.'
Lochner said growers often seek employees with horticultural degrees or an understanding of entomology for on-farm work. But the scope of work opportunities include researchers, bankers, crop consultants, irrigation system specialists and people managing and operating processing plants.
'They have people working in their quality control and quality assurance labs, people working in product development labs so there are food scientists who work in those areas. There are people designing and building those plants,' he said. 'The opportunities in jobs and careers are pretty diverse depending upon what people are interested in.'
No typical day
It's a bright summer day at the end of June when Moss talks about his return to the farm. The work schedule tends to fall into more specific hours – dictated by daylight – than his previous career in software where work times could be more amorphous.
But weather and other variables keep the days – and work hours – from becoming routine.
'There really is no typical day,' he said. 'Every day is so much different. This time of the year the cranberries are growing. Some are in bloom and some have berries out there already. This time of the year is really focused on keeping the cranberries healthy and growing a good crop.'
The spring and early summer work will manifest itself this fall when the cranberry beds at Elm Lake will be flooded and the berries harvested.
Wisconsin is the nation's leading producer of cranberries at 5 million barrels worth about $138 million. Wisconsin agriculture generates $88.3 billion in economic activity.
'I'm pretty optimistic about our growers because we're seeing a generational transition,' Lochner said. 'Most of the farms here in Wisconsin have been in families for generations and we're seeing, on a number of farms, the transition to the next generation.
'They're young, they're enthusiastic and they want to get involved in not only the business but also their communities and organizations,' he said.
Moss has combined his career in software with his life on the farm by developing a smartphone application that runs and monitors the farm's irrigation pumps. He's also learning the more traditional nuances of the farm and cranberry production from his dad and grandfather.
Moss's dad, Mike, said he's glad to see his son working, and living, on the family-run operation.
'It's such a relief. I had no retirement and I didn't know what I was going to do,' Mike said. 'I needed an out… and I really didn't want to sell it. I'd like to keep it going.'
Moss, a father of four, said his folks let him choose his own career path, and he'll do the same with his daughters. If they choose, the family business at Elm Lake Cranberry Co. could one day be theirs.
The truck continues to drive slowly, cranberry beds spreading out on either side of the vehicle.
'That would be great if they wanted to,' he said. 'But whatever makes them happy.'