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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Splash of Red

I now consider myself Clarksville’s resident expert on the cranberry. We went on not one but TWO tours of cranberry farms! If there’s something you want to know about cranberries… just ask me! :-)

It’s a good thing I booked the two different tours…monsoons hit the area and really messed up the harvest schedule. But between the two tours on different days we got to see everything that goes into being a cranberry farmer.

Our first tour was thru the Pittsville High School ‘Future Farmers of America’ group. This high school has the nation’s only ‘cranberry science’ class. They call their tour “A Splash of Red”. The kids were the ones who spoke during the tour, with their advisor nearby to help with questions they didn’t know. The kids who could not handle public speaking prepared a cranberry lunch with help from the home ec teacher. They all did a fabulous job!

The second tour was thru Glacial Lakes Cranberries – a big commercial production. It was a very good tour also and covered the local history of cranberry farming. There was also a nice gift shop where you could get cranberry products and fresh berries.

Cranberries are a native American fruit. They were originally called “Crane Berries” because the flowers look very much like the head of a Sandhill Crane.

They are Wisconsin’s #1 fruit crop. There are 250 farmers who grow them and production dates back to the mid-1800s.

To make a cranberry marsh, the topsoil is removed (saved for later use) and the subsoil is dug down about 18 inches. They then backfill the area with about 12 inches of sand. Each marsh is 150 wide and 500 or more long. Each cranberry field has a reservoir of water that is gravity fed into the bogs. They are designed for the water to flow in one side and out the other – to another field. It’s a really efficient system. They grow in acidic sandy soil.

To plant a new field, they mow off tops from other cranberry beds and spread this the same as you’d spread hay over grass seed in your yard. Then a tractor with a type of disk attachment goes over it pushing the pieces into the ground. It’s then packed down and gently watered for a few weeks. Those cuttings take root and that is the start of the new cranberry field.

HOWEVER… it takes 3 to 4 years before there is any harvest. And that first one is small. In 6 years the new bed will be in full production. It takes about $30,000 per acre to establish a new bed. That’s a lot of money to sink in and not see a return on for at least 4 years!

Myth – Cranberries do not grow in water!

The marsh is flooded the day before harvest to make it easier to harvest the berries. There are 2 ways of harvesting. The fruit that will be sold as fresh is harvested with a machine that has tines like a comb. And that’s just what it does… it combs the berries off the vine very gently so they don’t bruise (which would cause them to spoil quickly). The second method is for berries that will be processed (juice, sauce, crasins, etc). This tractor has a “paddlewheel” on the front and it goes thru the marsh whacking the vines. The berries then float to the top. They are corralled by floating booms like you see holding back oil spills. They put the booms down in the water on the far side of the marsh suspended between 2 tractors on either side of the marsh. They drive along slowly pulling the booms which push the cranberries to the far corner where a machine with a conveyor belt moves them up into the waiting truck. There are a couple guys in the water (just like the Ocean Spray Cranberry guys!) who use bull floats to keep them moving into the conveyor belt.

Once they are harvest, they head over to the buying company. In Wisconsin, 60% of the crop is bought by Ocean Spray. The buying company takes a 10 pound sample with it coming from the front, middle and back of the load. The fruit is then analyzed for ph and sugar levels, as this affects the price the farmer will get. The berries are then unloaded into big tanks, washed and sent inside for crating.


Trivia:

The 5 major cranberry growing states are: WI, MA, OR, NJ and WA.

WI is the top cranberry state – it grows more than half of the US crop.

Cranberries are the fruit highest in antioxidants.

Cranberry bushes bear fruit indefinitely. There are some marshes with vines that are over 100 years old.

In the cranberry marsh!


A couple of kids from the "Cran Crew".

The kids who prepared our very good lunch.


A year old cranberry field.

Cranberries floated but not yet gathered.


Pushing the berries towards the truck.

Cranberry bush.

Flooded cranberries.

A marsh ready for loading.

Field after field of pink-red berries were so pretty.


LOTS of cranberries.


Himself showing the old way of hand harvesting with a rake.

A little bit closer...


Crating the berries at the factory.


An antique quarter barrel (25 pounds) cranberry box.


Loading cranberries.

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