Earlier this month at 6:30 on a particularly cloudy, cold and windy morning, I boarded the Wisconsin Alumni Made-in-Wisconsin-Cranberry-Tour bus for the 2-hour trek from Madison to Pittsville, a town about 900 that boasts:
- of being in the exact geographical center of Wisconsin
- of offering the nation’s only high school class in cranberry science.
The cranberry science class leads tours that demonstrate how Wisconsin has come to produce more cranberries than any other place in the world.
It’s an engrossing tale.
Native to North America, the cranberry evolved in wetlands, and developed four little pockets of air. This buoyancy has had a lot to do with the relationship between humans and these wincingly tart red fruits.
Wild cranberries disperse their bobbing berries into running water. So they don’t need sugar to tempt animals to eat their berries and spread their seed. Instead, they put their energy into acids and tannins.
Indigenous peoples pounded them with venison to create the first power bars. Crushed together, the venison provided protein, and the cranberries supplied vitamin C and tannins that preserved the meat.
Cranberries were domesticated by early settlers who called them crane berries because their blossoms reminded them of the Sandhill Crane.
The oldest marsh in Wisconsin was planted in 1870 near Tomah and it’s still producing berries to this day. Early harvests were labor-intensive, but in the 1960s, growers took advantage of the berries’ buoyancy to flood the bogs and gather the floating berries mechanically.
In the vivid purple Pittsville school auditorium, we got a video overview of cranberry growing, then we clambered into a big, orange school bus with students from the cranberry science class to visit a harvest site.
Though growing cranberries is now a huge, mechanized operation, they still can only survive in wetlands, and for every acre in cranberry production, there must be 10 acres of wetlands that support them.
Wisconsin cranberry production takes up about 180,000 acres but only about 18,000 are actually harvested. The rest of the land is support land. dikes, ditches and reservoirs.
Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water, but they need ample quantities throughout the year.
A modern bog is a rectangular pit scraped to about 4 feet below ground level, leveled with lasers and then layered with sand and peatmoss.
The sand that is found in central Wisconsin is perfect for cranberry growing (unfortunately it is also ideal for fracking-but that is another story).
Cranberry stems grow upward from runners growing parallel to the ground. That is where all the fruit comes from. Right now buds are developing for the 2019 crop.
Each bed is surrounded with deeper channels where water can flow in or out of the bed as necessary. Early in the spring when the flower buds are tender, spraying water is used to protect the blossoms from freezing. As water goes from liquid to solid, heat is released. You can learn more here .
Irrigation is necessary throughout the summer, then the beds are flooded at harvest time. The berries are loosened by machines and float to the surface to be collected into trucks and hauled to a massive holding facility where they are graded, cleaned and stored at -10 F until they can be processed at nearby Ocean Spray plants into juice and dried berries.
Over winter, the plants are covered with a couple inches of water that freezes into a protective ice coat safeguarding the dormant vines from temperature fluctuations and desiccating winter winds. This crucial protection is at risk now as Climate Change swings weather from early thaws to more hard freezes in our part of the world.
Before the ice melts, bogs are sprinkled with a layer of sand that will settle around the plants in the spring. This helps the vines stand up straighter.
Wisconsin cranberry growers have been working closely with the University of Wisconsin to develop new types of berries and the most efficient ways to grow them. This contributes to Wisconsin’s #1 spot in the cranberry world. (Cranberries are grown in other countries – but not as many as here.)
Back at the school, the students served us a lunch prepared locally, including a cranberry desert.
Though most cranberries are consumed around Thanksgiving, it’s a healthy idea to incorporate more of them into our diet. However a word of warning on “white” cranberry juice, developed to avoid the staining qualities of red juice. White cranberry juice is made by harvesting the “snowballs,” or not-yet-mature white berries, about a month early. To make snowballs sweet enough to drink, requires an even heftier addition of sugar than ripe cranberries.
A few years ago, my busy med student daughter upgraded our Thanksgiving cranberry dish to fresh cranberries, apples and oranges all tossed into the blender. It’s delish!
Another favorite of mine:
What do you love about cranberries? I’d love to hear from you.
Categories: SUSTAINABLE FOOD