WisBiz In-Depth: Cranberry industry survives by mixing old and new

By Gregg Hoffmann

Wisconsin leads the world in cranberry production in large part because it has maintained and improved historically proven practices while also being open to innovations.

It will have to continue to do so to thrive in the future, according to the man who heads the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.

"Some of the things the growers do they have been doing for decades," said Tom Lochner, executive director of the association, which is located in Wisconsin Rapids. "At the same time, we have to adapt to new rules and regulations. We have to continue to examine our pesticide and nutrient use. We have to continue to explore new markets."

Wisconsin averages around 300 million pounds of cranberries per year, more than half of the estimated 575 million pounds consumed by Americans each year. Lochner said this year’s crop should range between 300 and 330 million pounds.

About 250 growers can be found in 20 counties. All told, the cranberry industry generates about $300 million in the state and employs around 7,000 people.

Wisconsin ranks tops in the country, with Massachusetts, the one-time leader, ranking second. Urban development pressure and land prices have reduced Massachusetts' cranberry production. You also can find some cranberries in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington and Oregon, but none of those states approach Wisconsin.

Internationally, cranberries are grown in British Columbia and Quebec in Canada, but combined production is around 1 million pounds. There is some production in Chile and in Eastern Europe, but once again production is minor compared to Wisconsin.

"Cranberries are grown where they grew naturally," Lochner said. "Growers have enhanced and increased what nature already had established. We still remain a relatively small part of farming overall (about 50,000 acres in Wisconsin). Because of that, growers have had to be innovative. They’ve had to adapt."

Three major things are needed for good cranberry production: ample water supply, acidic conditions and sand. Many cranberries originally grew in peat marshes. Some of those still exist, especially in northern Wisconsin, but more berries now are grown in sand.

Water is essential, and the use of it has created some controversy for the cranberry growers. Marshes are flooded during harvest time. Water also is used to help grow the vines, and some growers even pack the vines in ice over the winter.

Environmental Concerns

Some environmentalists and others have expressed concerns about phosphorous, nitrogen and other compounds from fertilizer and pesticides getting into the marsh water and eventually into contributing streams, rivers and lakes.

"We share those concerns," Lochner said. "We need good quality water or our crops can become contaminated. We have done a lot of water testing in the past. If nothing was found in the water, it often called considered inconclusive. If something was found, it often led to arguments over how much was safe.

"A few years ago, our members decided to adopt a policy of doing the best we can possibly do. We have worked a great deal with extension researchers, the DNR and EPA and others on water quality issues.

"There has been a lot of misinformation out there. We actually are a pretty low impact form of agriculture compared to others. A grower might use 20 to 40 units of nitrogen, for example, compared to 200 for growing corn. Because we use a lot of water, we are very concerned about it. It's our lifeblood. We feel we can do even better."

In August of this year, Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager filed a lawsuit with 14 landowners in Sawyer County against a cranberry grower on Lac Courte Oreilles. The suit contends that William Zawistowski has polluted the lake by releasing fertilizers and other pollutants.

Farm groups have protested the suit, contending it threatens the "Right to Farm" law. They maintain the cranberry operation was in place years before the complainants owned their property and that the operation does not present a substantial threat to public health and safety.

Lochner said he could not comment directly on the lawsuit because it is still in litigation, but he said that growers, especially in northern Wisconsin, are facing some conflicting land use problems, not unlike those that have reduced the cranberry industry in Massachusetts.

Whenever possible, the growers association tries to work with landowners, Lochner said. He cited a group in Washburn County that has worked with growers.

"Agriculture faces these situations in various areas. You have people who move to the country and then don't like the smells or noises of the farm machinery," Lochner said. "That's why we have the 'Right to Farm' law. We do try to work with landowners."

Health Benefits

While there might be some concerns about the impact of cranberry production on the environment, research has shown that cranberries are very high in anti-oxidants and other elements that do have health benefits.

A Harvard study in 1994 indicated that cranberries can be very helpful in preventing urinary tract infections. A Rutgers study in 1998 confirmed those findings and pinpointed elements in cranberries that fight the spread of bacteria.

New research published in a letter in the Journal of The American Medical Association suggests that cranberries may have even greater bacteria-fighting properties than previously thought. This new research supports a potentially broader range target bacteria, such as staphylococcus, salmonella as well as E. coli.

Some more recent research has indicated cranberries also might aid in the fights against heart disease and cancer. Yet another study indicates elements in the fruit might combat gum disease. All this research opens up additional markets.

"There is a company producing dental floss that has cranberry coating," Lochner said. "I've told growers they might not be able to sell marshes of fruit just for dental floss, but it is another niche market."

An Iowa beef company is researching the possible natural preservative potential of cranberries in meats, especially turkey.

Lochner's group participates in these studies as much as resources allow. Health benefits not only help the industry to market cranberry food products, but further research could even open up additional markets in the medical products industry.

"We are constantly looking for new markets," Lochner said. "We support research as much as we can."

Marketing and Processing

Marketing goes well beyond the health benefits thrust and, along with processing, has changed rather dramatically over the last decade or so. Not that many years ago, growers sold about 95 percent of their berries as fresh fruit and about 5 percent for processed foods.

Today, those statistics are just about reversed. Cranberry sauce, a traditional processed use for the berries, various juices, dried fruits, concentrates, ingredients for cooking, even glazes for meat products consume about 95 percent of the market.

Lochner said the berries are grown and processed differently for fresh fruit sales than for processed. "You have to be much more careful to not damage the berries when you are selling them as fresh fruit," he said.

"They are cultivated and harvested differently. They are packed and stored differently. Care is still taken when the fruit is going for processed foods, but it obviously can be handled differently."

Ocean Spray, a growers' cooperative, has about a 60 percent market share for the processing and marketing of cranberries. At one time, the co-op had about 85 percent.

Northland, which recently sold a plant and some of its marsh options to Ocean Spray, remains a "major player" in Wisconsin, according to Lochner. Cliffstar Corporation and others remain very active in the state. A relatively new co-op, the Wisconsin Cranberry Cooperative, also has picked up growers.

Growers can sign with a specific co-op or company, and send their berries directly to that organization's processing plant. Or, as in the case of the WCC, the growers can sell to the highest bidder through the co-op.

Concerns were expressed about the fate of about 30 employees at the Wisconsin Rapids plant when the Northland sale to Ocean Spray was first announced, but Lochner does not think the deal will have a negative impact on growers or the industry overall. "Northland remains very much in the cranberry industry," he said. "Ocean Spray is expanding."

The state association works with all these organizations in the promotion and marketing of cranberries. It recently helped develop the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center, a museum and exhibition facility, in Warrens, and maintains a web site at wiscran.org, through which you can buy fruit via Virtual Cranberry Stands.

Starts With Growers

For Lochner’s group, and the industry as a whole, it all starts with the growers. (A previous WisBiz In-Depth concentrated on one grower, Kurt Rutlin, in Monroe County.)

"A grower has to have a unique set of talents," Lochner said. "He has to know a little about engineering, crops and agronomics, water quality, a lot of things.

"Because we are a relatively small type of agriculture, John Deere doesn't make a machine to harvest cranberries. Most growers develop their own equipment or take some that was made by small machine shops and adapt it to their marshes.

"Increasingly, growers have to know about safe fertilizers and nutrients. They have to keep up with changing regulations on the federal and state levels. Some of what you need to know you can learn in school, but some of it you only learn by being out there and running the marshes."

Many of the cranberry growers in the state have been in the business for generations. Some of the marshes have been run since the mid-1800s. Lochner's group was founded in 1887.

It's the commitment of these growers that has made Wisconsin the leader in the country in cranberry production, Lochner said.

"These are dedicated people who have learned the historic practices that have been handed down from generation to generation, but also have adapted to new practices and incorporated new research into their farming," he said.

"I think the industry will have to continue to do that – to be willing to adapt growing practices, water management, marketing innovations and other parts of what really is a unique part of American agriculture."

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