The Buoyant Berry

A fifth-generation grower helps dispel the myths and decipher the mystique of the modern cranberry farm.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By George Steinmetz & Boyce Upholt

A.C. Bennett, one of the pioneers of Wisconsin cranberry farming, was asked to give a two-and-a-half-minute speech to the local growers association in 1908. Bennett, known to be chatty, said he found the time restriction a challenge. Nevertheless, his speech was prescient: In it, he predicted a future in which pruning and picking would be done with “a specially constructed automobile.” A future of tractors, in other words.

Cranberry farming today is indeed a high-tech affair, and the tractors do far more than prune and pick. New practices and technologies have helped transform Cranmoor, the small town Bennett helped found a few years before his speech, from a swampy “wasteland” into the epicenter of a vast international trade. It’s a remarkable story of growth—and worth just a few more minutes than Bennett’s brief two and a half.

Wisconsin likely doesn’t bring to mind the typical vision of a cranberry farm. The image evoked by Ocean Spray—the industry-leading co-op—is of the Massachusetts coastal marshes where the commercial harvest began. But in the mid-1990s, after many changes in the business, Wisconsin became the nation’s leading producer, and today accounts for more than 60% of the U.S. crop. The wetlands around Cranmoor—once part of a vast glacier-fed lake—turned out to be the perfect landscape for the scale of the modern cranberry farm; they offer clean water, acidic soil and plenty of open space.

Four generations after its founding, the Bennett family farm persists. This past spring, Randy Bennett, A.C.’s great-great-grandson, drove alongside Chuck’s Marsh (named for his father), which, unlike most of the 62 beds on the farm, is in the shape of a jagged quadrilateral. “When you build new, you build a rectangle,” says Randy, indicating the shape of his recently renovated beds contained on each side with parallel dikes that meet at right angles.

Perfect rectangles increase efficiency. Randy installs underground irrigation systems in his newer beds that ensure consistent watering, and he can apply pesticides and herbicides simply by driving a tractor, with an attached boom, alongside the dike-top roads. (The width of a farmer’s bogs will generally be slightly less than twice the length of his boom, so, using an 83-foot boom, Randy builds bogs 150 feet across.)

This is a world apart from what A.C. Bennett knew. He started the family business in 1873, buying marshland regarded as having little use. In those years, the bogs had to be cleared and picked by hand. In 1908, when Bennett gave his speech, pickers had only recently begun to use wooden rakes, rather than kneeling and picking by hand. Bennett’s predicted mechanized pickers did not appear until the middle of the 20th century.

The familiar image of a marshy cranberry bog is, if not incorrect, misleading. For most of the year, the beds are dry, as cranberries will rot if left underwater. The beds are flooded intentionally and regularly, throughout the year, but only temporarily. In the winter, a sheet of ice insulates the vines; in the spring, a quick flood brings old berries and leaves to the water’s surface where they can be skimmed away; and in the fall, a layer of water allows the buoyant berries, once raked free from their vines, to be pushed to one corner of the bed and efficiently loaded into waiting trucks.

Because farmers want to move water on and off the bogs quickly, the bogs are carefully graded, each lower than the next, with a large reservoir sitting above the highest bog and an outlet downslope that runs into the Wisconsin River. (For every acre of cranberries, the typical farmer has 7 acres of water or wetlands.) In a certain sense, Randy says, his operation is less about farming berries than water.

The cranberry is a perennial, so after the three- to five-year wait for a bed to mature, it can produce for 50 years or more. Growers need to make long-term predictions about the market. While everyone used to plant Stevens cranberries—a hybrid bred by the USDA—new hybrids appear every year. Randy has five varieties planted currently, all bred to be firm enough to produce the most valuable cranberry product: the Craisin, or sweetened dried cranberries (SDCs) as they are known in the industry. The Wisconsin crop is almost entirely devoted to juice and dried cranberries; fewer than a dozen of the state’s 250 farmers focus on the fresh market.

SDCs were invented in the mid-1990s, and are the perfect product for Wisconsin’s vast cranberry farms. The slight bruising inevitable with large-scale mechanical harvesting is not a problem for berries that are almost immediately frozen and later processed. (Mechanically processed cranberries are, for similar reasons, also well-suited for producing juice.)

Bennett—like many of his neighbors—is among the 700 owners of Ocean Spray, and during the fall harvest sends truckloads of berries 10 miles down the road to the co-op’s facility in Babcock, Wisconsin. There, 18-wheelers full of fruit are angled up on hydraulic lifts, waiting to send their crop tumbling—rivers of cranberries, ready to be sorted, frozen and stored.

Randy Bennett loves this land, telling a story of how he once held up a jar to capture the beloved odor of the peat mud. He loves his heritage, too; he keeps his beard trimmed to the same length A.C. Bennett kept his own, in an homage to the man who started a persistent tradition.

“For some reason, there’s always a Bennett around who’s wanted to be a grower,” Bennett says. “We’re very fortunate to have made it five generations.” And now six, he notes. His nephew Asa recently returned to work full time on the farm.

Much has changed, but there’s one ritual that would be familiar to Bennett’s great-great-grandfather: Each fall, Randy takes an old-fashioned hand rake and skims off a family supply of his berries. He’ll eat them fresh, just as they’ve been eaten here for 140 years.