Wisconsin Cranberries

Fall, Heroes, In Season, Local Heroes
on November 1, 2006
Kyle Dreier

Mention cranberries and most folks think of New England, not Wisconsin. But Cranmoor Township in the western part of the state is home to 15 cranberry growers, making it the largest inland cranberry-producing area in the world.

In the heart of the business is Mary Brown, owner of Glacial Lake Cranberries, Inc. Brown is sole owner (“well, me and the bank”) of the 6,000-acre property of wetlands and forest that supports 330 acres of cranberry vines. Her whole family works the farm. Husband Phil pilots visitors in the “berry bus” during harvest tours. “He’s also the number-one groundskeeper,” says Brown. Son Steve knows when the phone rings in his college dorm it’s Mom with the usual plea: “Can you come home this weekend?” Daughter Alison helps out in the visitors’ center. And if frost threatens before harvest, as it often does in this region, everybody’s up all night to save the crop.

Brown wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love the land and what grows on it,” she declares. “Even when times are tough, there’s no place I’d rather be. It’s a way of life for me.”

The family’s livelihood requires year-round work. After the harvest, the irrigation pipes are removed, roads repaired, and vines combed of excess growth. Next, brush is burned to keep woody vegetation at bay. Then, when the temperature drops below freezing, water is pumped into the bogs to encase the vines with ice to protect them from winter’s cold and wind. Every couple of years, Brown coats the surface of the ice with a layer of sand, which filters downward during the spring melt to anchor the vines and stimulate new root growth—“rejuvenation,” she calls it.

Spring is the magical season when the bog shimmers with white buds (said to resemble the heads of the sandhill crane for which the fruit—crane berry—was named). “Because we have both early- and late-blooming varieties of berry, it’s white for weeks. People drive out to see it; it’s the pastel contrast to autumn. “This isn’t a nine-to-five job,” Brown continues. “It’s more than the berries, it’s the whole outdoors. It gets in your blood. I value the land and I feel responsible for perpetuating the wetlands and the diversity of wildlife. It’s our back yard.”

By Carla Waldemar, a writer Minneapolis, Minn.