By Barbara Sanford
Many know Wisconsin as the Dairy State, however, few realize that it holds another title — the largest producer of cranberries in the world! Each year, the state grows 600 million pounds of cranberries and supplies the U.S. with two-thirds of the cranberries consumed annually.
Central Wisconsin is the epicenter of this thriving industry and that’s where we start our tour of this once seasonal staple that has been gracing thanksgiving tables for generations.
Our cranberry tour begins in Stevens Point where we travel Wisconsin’s Cranberry Highway, a 50-mile-long sea of bright red cranberries, to Glacial Lake Cranberries in Wisconsin Rapids, one of the oldest cranberry marshes in central Wisconsin. There we learn about the geography of the region and the history of the cranberry industry at their historic visitor Center. From here we hop aboard the berry bus with third-generation cranberry growers Phil and Mary Brown for a cranberry harvest tour around the marsh.
It’s mid-October, and the cranberries have reached their peak of color and are ready for harvesting. the dry marshes (or bogs) of low running vines have been flooded with eight to 10 inches of water, and we watch as a picking machine is driven through the bed. Its tines comb through the vines and pick the fruit off. the berries float to the surface and are corralled into one area of the marsh and removed by a pumping system onto a conveyor and into a bin.
These berries will be processed into juice, sauce and sweetened dried cranberries. They will be delivered by truck to a receiving station, where they will be graded, cleaned and frozen for later use. “Our family has been in one place doing the same thing for 140 years,” says Mary. “It’s a way of life.” Tours are offered Monday through Friday and on select Saturdays during harvest season. After the tour, we buy cranberry wine and berries at the Visitor Center shop.
Then it’s off to lunch at the Elm Lake Cranberry Company in Wisconsin Rapids, owned by third-generation growers Mike and Diane Wirtz, whose family started the business in 1901. Our catered lunch is all things cranberry — pork loin in a Merlot cranberry demi-glace; chicken smoked and glazed with cranberry BBQ sauce; spinach salad topped with candied walnuts, Bleu cheese and sweetened dried cranberries tossed in a cranberry vinaigrette; green beans with almonds and sweetened dried cranberries; wild rice with fresh cranberries; and cranberry walnut tart.
Our next stop is Gardner Trucking & Cold Storage in Pittsville, the largest independent receiving station in the country. Here we watch the berries being cleaned, binned and frozen before they are processed. They store 50 percent of Wisconsin’s cranberry crop — 250 million pounds. It is also the home of Badger State Fruit Processing, a state-of-the-art sweetened dried cranberry facility. The plant processes 25 million pounds of sweetened dried cranberries annually. We watch as the fruit is transported from the freezer to the staging room, where it is sliced and sorted, infused with liquid sugar, dried and declumped before being packaged. With advance notice so that a tour guide can be scheduled, the public is welcome to visit the facility.
Cranberry juice concentrate and juice are made in the juice plant across the street. It’s very likely that the cranberry juice you drink is made from cranberries grown, stored and processed here in the heart of Wisconsin’s cranberry country.
Additional cranberry marsh tours are available in the Tomah area.
Celebrate the Wisconsin Cranberry Harvest this fall at the Warrens Cranberry Festival, the world’s largest cranberry festival, complete with tours, a parade, demonstrations and markets. Don’t miss the Cranberry Public Harvest Day marsh tour at the Wetherby Cranberry Company in Warrens, where you can put on waders and walk right out into the marsh. Then visit the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center in Warrens.
In northern Wisconsin, enjoy the world’s largest cranberry cheesecake, along with a run/walk and arts and crafts fair, at the Eagle River Cranberry Fest, and the pancake breakfast, pie social and flea market at the Stone Lake Cranberry Festival.
Now that we’ve seen how cranberries are harvested and processed, we decide to experience firsthand how cranberries can enhance our lives. So it’s off to the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake for a soothing cranberry citrus anti-aging facial at the Aspira spa. The facial consists of an apricot cleanser, exfoliant, calm skin chamomile cleanser, apricot calendula nourishing cream, cranberry pomegranate sugar scrub, cranberry masque and wash, and calm skin moisturizer. Afterwards, I enjoy a refreshing cranberry smoothie in the spa café.
The following day, I learn the art of cooking with cranberries at L’ecole de la Maison cooking school also located on the resort’s grounds. Our class features a french bistro menu with a cranberry twist. We cook mushroom veloute (soup) with duxelles, chevre and cranberry croutons; fennel, cranberry and orange salad; salmon en papillote with apple cranberry compote; cranberry cheddar polenta; swiss chard with cranberries and toasted pine nuts; crepes suzettes with cranberries; and fougasse (bread) with cranberry, rosemary and walnuts.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience WISCONSIN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.