“I don’t really need to go to school, because I’m going to be a cranberry farmer.”
For some who grew up on cranberry farms in Wisconsin, taking on the family business was a no-brainer. Children are born and raised on the cranberry marshes that stretch across 21,000 acres of the state, maintained by generations of families for over a century.
“From a very young age — being the youngest of four and the only boy — he had that in his heart,” Jenna Van Wychen said of her husband’s childhood dreams of taking on the family business.
Van Wychen and her husband are in the fourth generation of cranberry growers at Wetherby Cranberry Company, a family-run cranberry farm that has been operating since 1903.
According to Van Wychen, the farm in Warrens, Wisconsin, specializes in fresh fruit production, a niche of the industry comprising only 5% of the nation’s cranberry output.
In 2020, Wisconsin produced just under 4.7 million barrels of cranberries, vastly outstripping production in Massachusetts, the runner-up at around 2 million barrels. With the majority of the world’s cranberry production located in the Americas (96% in 2021), that means more than half of the world’s supply is grown in Wisconsin. The state has aptly been named the “Cranberry Capital of the World,” even declaring the cranberry their state fruit in 2004.
But cranberries have been a part of Wisconsin’s history since the state was founded — and well before. Native to the marshes of the region, wild cranberries were harvested by Native Americans, such as the local Ho-Chunk people, who used them for many purposes.
They ate them fresh, used them to make bread, or as a key ingredient in pemmican. The Native Americans also employed cranberries’ medicinal properties, using them to treat wounds as a poultice or calm nerves as a tea. They also used the juices to dye blankets and rugs.
When European settlers arrived in Wisconsin in the mid-19th century, they conducted trades with Native Americans for cranberries.
“Like the pioneers of that era, [settlers] came into Wisconsin and understood that because cranberries naturally grow here, they could be cultivated into a way that would make sense for the market,” Heidi Slinkman, a fourth-generation cranberry grower at Gaynor Cranberry Company in Wisconsin Rapids, said.
Slinkman is a descendant of the Gaynor brothers, some of the earliest cranberry farmers in Wisconsin who paved the way for the future of cranberry production in the state.
“[John Gaynor] had a background in law and worked very hard in the legislative end of things to secure our right to farm by our ability to access the river — for example, to put a ditch in where we could flow the water from the river to our farms,” Slinkman said. “And that is unique to Wisconsin; it is not the same kind of law structure you would see, for example, in a state like Minnesota or Michigan where our lands are very similar.”
Water is a crucial tool in the cranberry harvesting process: Cranberries grow on vines in sandy soil beds, and when they are ready for harvest, farmers flood the beds with water. Pockets of air inside the cranberries cause them to float to the top, making them easier to reel in and collect.
Although they are a perennial plant, cranberries need a specific environment to grow: sandy soil with the right pH, access to water and a cold season to go dormant underneath a layer of ice.
Because of their specific needs, cranberry growers in Wisconsin are concerned about the changing climate, especially as it manifests in droughts and global warming.
“The problem will be — potentially — if we don’t experience the frozen tundra that we know of the Great North. If it doesn’t get cold enough, we can’t flood the bed with ice,” Slinkman said. “That frozen ice actually acts like a blanket for them so that the wind doesn’t nip them where the bud is going to be for next year’s growth.”
“Mother Nature’s really our boss and she’s non-negotiable most of the time.”Jenna Van Wychen, Wetherby Cranberry Company
Nonetheless, the unique and increasingly fragile combination of environmental characteristics means that Wisconsin is among the only growers of cranberries in the world, according to Slinkman. While this is good for business, it also means that they have to uphold higher standards for their cranberry growing.
“That’s why we grow in such a conservative way,” Slinkman said, “because we want to be able to meet the needs of Japan or Jamaica or France or Germany or Switzerland or wherever they’re going.”
But being one of the only cranberry growers in the world has its positives, too. For Wisconsin marshes, one of these positives is the agritourism drawn from around the globe — especially during harvest season.
Cranberries are widely celebrated in Wisconsin, and the September-October harvest season is the busiest time of year. This includes the Warrens Cranberry Festival, which recently ran for its 50th year, along with individual farms’ harvesting events.
For Rochelle Hoffman at Rooted in Red, these events take the form of cranberry marsh tours, along with the opportunity to don a pair of waders and have your photo taken inside the floating cranberry beds. According to Hoffman, the experience is a bucket-list item for many tourists, and people come from as far and wide as New York, California, Japan, Great Britain and France.
Residents of Wisconsin also benefit from their local cranberry farm’s events.
“Our local community very much engages with our music and local food truck nights; we have local bands, and we have local food trucks on a couple Saturdays in the summer … It’s very much a family event,” Hoffman said. “My hope is that people leave the cranberry farm with a full belly and an edified soul that they’ve made a connection with another person — a connection with the farm.”
Connections are what welds the cranberry industry together in Wisconsin, among the local communities as well as among the farmers themselves.
In 1887, the Gaynor brothers established the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association in collaboration with the cranberry farming community, and a precedent of networking was set.
“In the state of Wisconsin, for the most part, everyone knows everybody,” Van Wychen said. “There’s about 250 grower families in the state, and [we’re] very close; we all work really well together. That’s a different layer of family.”
With these partnerships comes the development of shared goals and innovation. The association holds events, such as trade shows and ‘research roundtables,’ to facilitate cooperation and discussion on how the industry can move forward.
“The grower community, I would say, is just very advanced in their thinking,” Van Wychen said. “We’re trying to grow the best crop we can, the healthiest crop we can, and being the most efficient at it.”
Collaboration continues at the business level, particularly manifested in Ocean Spray, an agricultural cooperative owned by more than 700 cranberry farmers in North America and Chile. Ocean Spray is a major processor of cranberry-based products and ensures that 100% of product profits return to their farmer shareholders — who are also the primary decision-makers in the future of both the cooperative and industry alike.
“We invest in ourselves, we invest in our farms, and therefore, we hope that we can sustain them for the next generation.”Heidi Slinkman, Gaynor Cranberry Company
For Hoffman, the generational history of cranberry farming in Wisconsin is what prepares them to adapt and develop for the future.
“Things were very different growing cranberries a hundred years ago, or when our great grandparents were doing it,” Hoffman said. “What is it going to look like in a hundred years when our great grandkids are doing it? And how do we make that transition happen?”
One of the ways that Wisconsin growers are realizing that transition is by dedicating time, resources and collaboration to research efforts.
According to Slinkman, a cranberry research station was in operation on their farm from 1900 to 1917, which the Gaynor brothers collaborated with to identify the most successful cranberry varietals.
Hoffman’s farm also engages heavily with research, and works closely with the University of Wisconsin’s horticulture department. According to Hoffman, they recently partnered with the university to patent a new cranberry varietal called “Big Red” through a GMO-free cross-pollination process.
The future of the cranberry industry hinges on more than just scientific research; workforce development is an urgent priority among Wisconsin cranberry growers. An analysis of the industry’s economic impact in 2012 discerned a contribution of over $380 million to Wisconsin’s economy and a generation of over 3,800 jobs annually.
Generational cranberry farms are hoping to continue this workforce pattern by engaging their children in farm work at a young age. Hoffman recalls how her great-great-grandfather started working full time on a cranberry farm at the age of 10 — now, her own children are filling their ancestor’s shoes.
“My kids have been harvesting — they usually help harvest every year. They started when they were 9 and 10,” Hoffman said. “They have a lot of different roles and it’s kind of fun looking at their interests — picking up on their interests and things that they like to do — and try[ing] to hone in on those and provide opportunities for them to be engaged.”
On an organizational level, too, industry experts are looking to reposition agriculture as a desirable career path for future generations.
In 2022, Slinkman established Cranberry Learning, which hosts workshops for students and provides educational resources dedicated to the cranberry cause.
“[Cranberry growers] have livelihoods that depend on a strong industry and the succession of our industry. And like many industries who have workforce shortages, we saw the value of being able to maybe participate in a succession plan for the jobs that are part of the cranberry industry,” Slinkman said.
She also reported that in their classroom workshops, they are already seeing an increase of children choosing trade schools as a post-secondary pathway.
Education is a key piece of the cranberry industry puzzle. For Hoffman, that includes educating consumers on how they can engage with the cranberry industry by introducing cranberries to parts of the world that don’t have them, as well as changing the way local customers use cranberries.
Slinkman wants to expand cranberry usage from seasonal to year-round by encouraging customers to freeze cranberries. A consumer demand for year-round cranberries could boost the cranberry industry by opening up the opportunity to sell frozen cranberries — a currently closed market in the industry.
“[By freezing cranberries] you’re training your brain to recognize that cranberries are not just seasonal, that you can eat them all throughout the year,” Slinkman said.
Yet at the heart of consumer demand, there is a yearning for simple cranberry recipes.
“When we go to farmer’s markets, and even when people come to the marsh and talk about how they’re learning to cook, they want to know how to use cranberries,” Van Wychen said.
Dipping fresh cranberries in caramel or making cranberry cake with hot butter sauce are two family favorites on Wisconsin’s cranberry farms. By sharing cranberry recipes with their communities, growers hope that their love for cranberries will spread through Wisconsin and beyond.
“There is so much love and technology and engineering and tears and blood and a family that goes behind that food that you eat, maybe at your Thanksgiving table, that you don’t even think twice about,” Hoffman said.