Climbing nimbly down a 4-foot embankment into a 3-acre bed of tangled cranberry vines, Ray Habelman Jr. smiles with satisfaction before bending low to examine this year's holiday season crop.
"These berries are mature, but need a few more days on the vine for a little more color," says Habelman, 36, as he plucks a handful of the bite-size fruit on his family's farm in Tomah, Wis. (pop. 8,419). "People like to see a pretty, red berry."
A fourth-generation cranberry farmer in the heart of Wisconsin's cranberry country, Habelman is among 240 growers in his state who harvest more than half of the nation's cranberry crop.
Last year, Wisconsin grew 446 million pounds of the native fruit, most of which was pressed into juices or canned as sauces. However, Habelman Brothers Co., with about 700 acres of cranberry vines, is the nation's largest single grower of fresh cranberries. The farm produces 9 million pounds that end up in bags in grocery stores across the United States, Canada and Europe.
"We've always been about fresh cranberries, all the way back to 1907," says Ray Habelman Sr., 61, citing the 12-acre bed first planted by his grandfather, John Habelman. "We just enjoy knowing that our cranberries are on so many tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas."
A Thanksgiving tradition
Every autumn, some 18,000 acres of Wisconsin wetlands turn into a sea of red as farmers harvest the tart little berries, just like the ones believed served during the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth Colony in 1621.
Native to North America, cranberries were an item of trade and a symbol of peace for American Indians who picked them long before Europeans arrived in the New World. They used the berries as a fabric dye and healing agent, and ate them fresh, ground or mashed with cornmeal and baked into bread. With small pink blossoms that resemble the head and bill of a sandhill crane, the berries originally were called crane berries.
America's first commercial grower was Henry Hall, a Revolutionary War sea captain and farmer in Dennis, Mass., who noticed how wild cranberries were larger and juicier when winter storms blew sand over the vines. He developed other cultivation techniques and launched the industry in Massachusetts in the early 1800s.
In 1860, New Yorker Edward Sacket traveled to Wisconsin and began to cultivate wild cranberry vines near Berlin (pop. 5,305). Other growers soon followed and the industry grew, thanks to Wisconsin's cool temperatures, acidic soils and an abundance of open land and water. By the 1990s, Wisconsin had become the nation's top cranberry producer, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington and Oregon.
"We have all the resources needed for growing cranberries," says Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, formed in 1887 and one of the nation's oldest farm organizations. "We have the perfect climate and the perfect topography."
Today, cranberries are the state's No. 1 fruit crop. No wonder that in 2004, a group of fifth-grade students from Kenosha County convinced the Wisconsin Legislature to make cranberries the official state fruit.
Tending the vines
"The biggest misconception about cranberries is that we grow them in water," Ray Jr. says. "It does take a lot of water, but what most people see is when we flood the beds for a wet harvest."
Because cranberries contain small pockets of air, they both float and bounceproperties that are important for harvesting and sorting. After a raking machine knocks the fruit from their vines, the beds are flooded and the floating berries are corralled on the water. Later in sorting machines, firm berries bounce off a series of sloped panels onto a conveyor belt for packing, while softer berries tumble into containers to be processed as juice. Some farms have computerized optical scanners for faster sorting, though hand sorting remains part of the process as well.
The harvest, held from late September to early November, culminates a year-round process. In the winter, farmers protect the perennial vines from sub-zero temperatures by covering the beds with a layer of ice. They spray the vines with water in the spring and early summer to protect against frost, then pollinate the blossoms with rented bees and irrigate and fertilize vines in the summer.
"They're a finicky berry," Ray Jr. says. "It's difficult to grow a good crop, and so easy to mess up and destroy everything."
Even though fresh cranberries are mouth-puckeringly tart, cranberry sales have grown sweeter with each decade. Markets have expanded far beyond fresh fruit, with about 80 percent of today's berries sold for juices.
This year, Americans will consume 400 million pounds of cranberries, about 25 percent during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. But the fruit is more than a seasonal side dish to turkey and stuffing. Development of sweetened-dried cranberries in the last decade has led to hundreds of new year-round uses, from summer salads and cereals to trail mixes and candy bars.
"It's an incredibly versatile fruit," says Jere Downing, executive director of the Cranberry Institute in East Wareham, Mass., noting that the United States grows about 85 percent of the world's supply, and Canada provides most of the rest.
Science also has been good to the industry. Research shows that the low-calorie berry is packed with antioxidants and has properties that protect the body from harmful bacteria. Cranberries long have been associated with urinary tract health, in addition to protecting against cancer and heart disease.
"When I was little, my father always told me, 'Eat your cranberries, they're good for you.' And turns out that they are!" laughs Nodji Van Wychen, 61, a third-generation grower in Warrens (pop. 286), the Cranberry Capital of Wisconsin.
While Van Wychen sells fresh cranberries and cranberry wine at her family farm, her husband, Jim, 61, supervises the annual harvest. Wearing hip waders, he walks on harvested vines through thousands of floating cranberriesan experience he describes as "kind of like walking in Jell-O."
There's satisfaction among cranberry growers, however, in seeing Wisconsin celebrated beyond its cheese, beer and the Green Bay Packers football team. "We're finally getting our due," Jim says. "People are really beginning to appreciate both the economic and health values of the cranberry."