Fall ushers in cranberry season for Wisconsin farmers

Drew Anderson

By Drew Anderson

PITTSVILLE, Wis. — While we see fields of gold across central Ohio this time of year, people in Wisconsin see fields of red.

More than 50% of all cranberries in the world come from Wisconsin, and that stat comes to life if you drive across Wisconsin’s “Cranberry Highway” in late September or October.

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As for the other months of the year, you won’t notice any cranberries from the road.

They’re hard to see because the red berries are surprisingly camouflaged between leaves on short shrubberies. The shrubbery beds grow only about half a foot tall in the sandy soil.

To make the cranberries appear, growers flood sections of their fields and create a literal sea of red.

Cranberries float because of four air pockets inside them. If you ever bite into a raw cranberry, you’ll feel it pop as your teeth hit the air pockets.

Farmers are very careful when helping the berries off the vine because if the harvest equipment damages a vine, it won’t produce any fruit for a few years.

As the berries are afloat, a big piece of yellow plastic circles the bog. This plastic serves as a lasso to pull the berries toward the harvesting equipment.

The harvesting machinery then sorts the berries from the vines. A river of berries goes into one truck while twigs and leaves go into another truck.

The twigs and leaves go on to become mulch while the berries get washed, boxed and often flash frozen.

To see this harvesting process firsthand, visit Pittsville, a town near the Cranberry Highway.

It’s home to the only cranberry science class in the nation. Students at Pittsville High School appreciate sharing what’s happening — literally — in their backyards with visitors.

As they share their knowledge, they also share their pride. Some of the students work in their parent’s cranberry fields after school, and if they don’t, they have friends who do.

Their teacher, Ms. Meissner, appreciates that students get to practice their communication skills on the tours.

The tours begin in the auditorium with a short video about Wisconsin cranberry production. Then, visitors hop on a yellow school bus and head to the cranberry fields.

This is followed up with a visit to Badger State Fruit Processing where cranberries are sorted based on color, quality tested and cataloged.

Inside the processing facility, empty wooden crates are filled with berries in seconds.

Forklifts take those wooden crates, two at a time, to the giant freezer.

While the harvest season is short, cranberry farming is a year-long process. Frost is the enemy of cranberries, so farmers carefully monitor the air temperature at night.

If the temperature drops to 40 degrees or below, farmers will turn on sprinklers.

The water prevents frost on the cranberry vines because water will be much warmer than the air temperature.

Water takes a long time to warm up (think about how long it takes to boil water for pasta!) and in this case — cool down.

When the sprinklers are on, growers monitor the fields all night to ensure each sprinkler keeps working correctly.

Now, they don’t have to worry about this during the winter.

Each winter, farmers flood the bogs so that several inches of ice cover the top of the cranberry vines.

This ice layer protects the shrubbery below because — surprisingly — the ice acts like a blanket. It shields the plants from temperature extremes, both hot and cold, and keeps the field a more constant temperature all winter.

In the spring, the ice naturally melts, and the growing season begins.

The money raised from the tours benefits Pittsville’s Future Farmers of America, a non-profit association.

The tour concludes with a cranberry-themed lunch back at the school. There’s cranberry horseradish for the pulled pork, a cranberry sauce for ice cream, and Wisconsin cheddar soup.

All of the food is donated by Baum’s Mercantile, a grocery store on Pittsville’s main street.

Fall ushers in cranberry season for Wisconsin farmers