by Jackie Sheckler Finch
With a strong, sweeping motion, Fawn Gottschalk shoves an old-fashioned cranberry rake through the marsh. Lifting it and letting the water drip through the metal contraption, with its large comb at one end and basket at the other, Gottschalk shows the batch of cranberries she has just harvested.
“This is how they used to do it. We don’t do it this way anymore,” Gottschalk said, adding with a laugh, “It would take forever to harvest our cranberries if we used this.”
As a fifth-generation cranberry farmer, Gottschalk has grown up in the business and seen many changes over the years. Tools and technology have improved, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the public’s taste for cranberries, especially during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“All of our berries go to Ocean Spray–a grower-owned co-op for which we are members,” she said. “Ocean Spray processes the berries into juice, sauce and other products.”
When leaves begin to glow gold and crimson and autumn temperatures creep cooler, Gottschalk said local cranberry growers are busy harvesting their crops, usually from mid-September through October. To enjoy fall foliage and scenic cranberry harvests, folks often like to drive the popular 50-mile Cranberry Trail and stop for a tour of a cranberry marsh and museum, enjoy lunch and shop for cranberry products.
Grown in marshes
Visitors are often surprised to learn, Gottschalk said, that Wisconsin cranberries are grown in marshes. “New England has cranberry bogs, we have marshes,” she said. “And, contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water.”
A perennial plant, cranberries grow on low-running vines in sandy marshes. Because each cranberry has four tiny air pockets, the berries float to the surface when marshes are flooded for harvesting. Custom-built harrow machines that look like gigantic lawn mowers with paddles in the front drive through the marsh to comb berries off the vine.
Floating berries are corralled by workers wearing rubber waders walking in hip-deep masses of cranberries surrounded by floating booms. Berries are sucked up by a big berry pump and loaded onto a conveyor belt and into a truck while water is dispelled back into the marsh.
“Wisconsin is the number-one cranberry producer in the United States,” Gottschalk said. “We are always very busy this time of year.”
According to the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee, Wisconsin will produce 5.9 million barrels of cranberries in 2018, representing more than 60 percent of the nation’s crop. More than 250 growers produce cranberries in Wisconsin.
The self-guided Cranberry Trail stretches along century-old cranberry beds from Wisconsin Rapids to Warrens and between Pittsville and Nekoosa. The trail winds past farms and fields, creeks and clouds and miles of red cranberries framed by blazing fall foliage.
Since cranberry marshes are working farms, visitors are asked to respect private property and arrange marsh tours beforehand. Marshes open to the public for tours are listed at wiscran.org/experience/cranberry-marsh-tours/.
To taste some of Wisconsin’s top fruit, stop by Rubi Reds in Wisconsin Rapids. “Cranberries taste good in so many different ways, and they are also good for you,” said owner Marcy Berlyn. “Cranberries are the highest of all fruits in antioxidants. Cranberries also are a fat-free, cholesterol-free and low-sodium food. “
At family-owned Rubi Reds, visitors can taste some of the many cranberry products made with the Wisconsin fruit, including wine, syrup, candy, dried cranberries, trail mix, salsa, bread, vinegar, preserves, mustard and much more.
Great Expectations restaurant in Wisconsin Rapids, another popular stop on the Cranberry Trail, features several tasty cranberry recipes. Started seven years ago by Amy Scheide and her mother-in-law, the business was given its name because “our goal was to provide great food to meet people’s great expectations.”
Great Expectations offers fresh homemade foods using local products. Locally harvested cranberries are a menu specialty.
“People know about cranberry sauce and cranberry juice, but you can use cranberries many other ways,” Scheide said. “One of the greatest compliments I’ve heard is that ‘I didn’t think I liked cranberries until I tried one of the cranberry dishes in your restaurant.’”