New ways to keep up

Photos courtesy of Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.
An aerial view shows floating cranberries being corralled and coaxed to one end of the marsh. Cranberries contain a pocket of air that enables them to float to the surface when the cranberry beds are flooded.

The worldwide demand for cranberries exceeds supply and growers are trying to find ways to make up the difference. In Wisconsin, where over half of all cranberries are grown, growers and the state cranberry association are working on strategies to fill supermarket shelves.

“We were short on fruit last year, and we’re going to be short this year,” says Ray Habelman of Habelman Brothers, a company that grows and packs fresh cranberries in Tomah, Wis. The Habelmans, who have been growing cranberries since 1907, when their great-grandfather started the first planting, now have 650 acres dedicated to cranberries with plans to expand. Habelman points out that markets for fresh cranberries, frozen cranberries, juice and dried cranberries are expanding rapidly. It’s a crop that is now accepted worldwide, though 95 percent of the market is for processed berries rather than fresh.

Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, agrees with Habelman. “We’re seeing growth in demand for cranberries, both domestically and internationally,” he says. He also notes that, since a cranberry marketing order took place during the 2000-2001 season, promotions have boosted sales markedly. Now, nearly 30 percent of the U.S. crop is exported.

Cranberry harvesters at Habelman Brothers.

Lochner points out that there are now some 1,000 products made from or containing cranberries, and the ever-expanding sweet and dried cranberry market is a big part of the reason. Cranberries are becoming popular as snacks and food ingredients. The fruit is native to Wisconsin, and there are about 250 growers in the state—140 are members of the WSCGA, with about 80 percent of the 18,000 total acres in cranberry production. The largest portion of their crop goes into juices and drinks. The state’s crop this year is estimated to be 3.85 million 100-pound barrels, which will be a 4 percent rise over last year’s crop, but still below the state record of 3.94 million barrels harvested in 2006.

Wisconsin is the largest cranberry-producing state, with a $350 million annual crop. What is it about Wisconsin? Lochner says that, being a native plant, the cranberry is ideally suited to the climate, and there is plenty of water for its cultivation and harvest.

“Secondly, we have the resources and land for cranberries, for example acidic soil,” Lochner says. There are many multigenerational families growing the crop, and the association itself has been around since 1887. In order to meet demand, the association is working hard with members to expand both acreage and yield. The goal is to expand the crop to about 23,000 acres within five years.

Lochner says the association’s board of directors has met to outline several programs aimed at increasing the planting of cranberry vines. Because most of the best ground is sandy soils in or near wetlands, the first step is to assist the state of Wisconsin and the U.S. Corps of Engineers in streamlining the permitting process. He says the idea is not to circumvent environmental standards for wetlands, but to help officials coordinate and identify inefficiencies in the process.

Berries sold as fresh fruit are picked from the vine using a mechanical raking machine.

“Over time, in the last four or five months, we have made some progress in that area,” Lochner says. For example, there may be ways to combine the review processes of the agencies involved and set up early, preplanning sessions with growers who want permits. This is an effort to get a clearer vision of where everybody is headed. Although most of the 5,000 additional acres would come from nonwetland areas, streamlining the process would benefit the industry in the long run.

Another way to get more cranberries to market is to improve yields, and the association has long promoted new varieties as a primary means of achieving this. The industry started with native species, but new varieties have already shown improved yields. The standard for processing cranberries now is the Stevens, a variety discovered in New Jersey, and it’s an improvement over local natives. In addition, new hybrid vines are going into both new and renovated plots.

“Getting the amount of plant materials we need has been a challenge,” Lochner says, so the association and individual growers are pushing nurseries to scale up vine production. In addition, WSCGA has helped fund the development of the University of Wisconsin’s new variety called Hy Red, and is working with growers and propagators to produce more vines. Hy Red is a hybrid with a short growing season that shows promise in both yields and color. Improved color is a boon in a processing industry where bright red is a selling point.

Another area where the association can help, Lochner says, is assistance with implementing more up-to-date growing practices. He cites irrigation scheduling, frost protection, soil moisture monitoring and integrated pest management as areas that many growers are proficient in. But, they can always do more. There is also a search for new chemicals, although this is a tricky subject with a crop that involves flooding of fields for both insect control and harvest. Still, they are having some success.

Ray Habelman Jr., of Habelman Brothers.
Workers at Habelman Brothers transport recently picked, dried and sorted cranberries to be packaged for sale as fresh fruit.

Nutrient management is something the association has been working on for the last six or seven years, Lochner says. Phosphorus is a particularly important ingredient in the production of quality cranberries—20 to 30 pounds of actual phosphorus are needed during the growing season—and WSCGA is disseminating information on this topic. Native phosphorus is bound up in the soil, and light applications through the season make it more available to the plants. Proper nutrition management may also allow processing cranberry growers to avoid fungal diseases and subsequent treatments.

Habelman grows cranberries for the fresh market, and he says that that part of the industry is a challenge when people talk about breaking out new acreage. It costs from $30,000 to $50,000 per acre to establish cranberries, the bigger budgets being for land where topsoil has to be removed to expose the sand that the crop loves. New acreage is not something to be taken lightly.

The Habelmans added 25 acres in 2008. “We’re putting in an additional 25 acres next spring, and that will probably be it for a while,” Habelman says. It is rare for his family to plant this many acres, but it is all in expectation that the market will be there when the vines mature in three or four years.

The family has always produced fresh-market fruit and has recently left the Ocean Spray cooperative that deals with processing in order to focus on a more personalized sale of their fresh crop. They have their own packing plant and label, and will use a broker to try to push their old fresh-pack markets as well as try out new ideas such as the restaurant trade. They will stick with their usual 12-ounce and 3-pound bags.

Cranberries in Wisconsin are grown on 80 to 250-foot wide beds that are at least 1,000 feet long and separated by dikes. Fresh berries require a more intensive harvest method as well as more labor, therefore bringing in higher prices. Habelman grows an early variety that is harvested in mid-September to take advantage of sales for the early Canadian Thanksgiving. Most fresh cranberries go to the holiday market.

During the harvest, Habelman uses nine 6-foot wide harvesters to gently pick up the berries from flooded beds. It can take up to six weeks and calls for extra labor. The company has a crew of 40 full-time employees, but during the harvest they will hire an extra 100 people. They hope for warm weather through the harvest, because cold weather could ice the beds. They have two packing sheds on three properties.

He can save a little money on new plantings because he uses his own labor and will take cuttings off his own vines, Habelman says, but it is all still expensive. As for yield increases, changes in cultural practices have come from tighter government oversight. His company has established progressive nutrient management and IPM programs, all documented, and he pays particular attention to micronutrients, good bee pollination and improved varieties. Soil and tissue tests conducted every two weeks during the growing season give him excellent fertility information.

As a consequence, his yields have improved about 15 percent over the last 10 years, to about 250 to 275 barrels per acre annually. That’s above the state average, but below the level of processing growers who can use long-season varieties and don’t have to pay as much attention to table-fresh quality. Habelman feels that by keeping on this track of improved growing conditions and variety selection, along with a few additional acres, he will be in a good position to meet the cranberry market head-on.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.