Wisconsin cranberry growers follow in their families’ footsteps
by Charlie Hildebrand
Amber Bristow remembers the moment she decided to work on her family’s cranberry farm.
With a degree in sports management and a job working for a minor league baseball team in Iowa, Bristow thought she knew the path she wanted to take. But every time she left her family’s cranberry farm in Warrens — in the western part of the state — to drive back to Iowa, Bristow would break down in tears.
Something about her family’s operation kept drawing her back.
“Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this when I could just stay here and not have to cry every time I go back?” Bristow recalls asking herself years ago.
At this pivotal moment in her life, Bristow decided to go back to her roots. For nearly five years now, Bristow has worked alongside her family as a fifth-generation cranberry grower.
Bristow’s decision to follow in her family’s footsteps is not unusual in Wisconsin’s cranberry industry. Wisconsin is home to numerous multigenerational cranberry farms, some of which are more than 120 years old. Despite being overshadowed by other industries in the agricultural sectors, these multigenerational cranberry growers continue to blossom year after year.
The harvesting process
Wisconsin is the leading producer of the country’s cranberries, having surpassed its main competitor — Massachusetts — nearly three decades ago. The industry produces more than 60% of the country’s cranberries annually. Tom Lochner, the executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, believes the industry’s success is tied to the state’s Indigenous history of harvesting cranberries.
“They used them for food, they used them for dye, they believed they had medicinal qualities that they could use them for. They used them as trade items,” Lochner says. “They grew here in the wild and they evolved over eons to the climate here in Wisconsin and to the environment that cranberries grow in.”
Cranberries grow on low shrubs and vines and are perennial crops, meaning they have a long lifespan. Amaya Atucha, an associate professor at UW–Madison’s Department of Horticulture and a fruit crop extension specialist with the UW–Madison Division of Extension, says cranberry plants are often over 100 years old.
“That’s very different from other crops that we grow here in Wisconsin, like corn. You plant [corn] every year, it germinates, you harvest it and the plant dies,” Atucha says.
Cranberry vines break out of their dormancy period in the spring when temperatures rise. The vines typically bloom in June, signaling bees to begin pollination. The berries grow throughout the summer and are ready to be harvested when they turn red.
Atucha says the change in color is caused by dropping temperatures and is the only indication that harvest season is beginning.
“What is really important for cranberry production is the color of the berries, because most of the fruit is going to go for processing,” Atucha says. “They have to be completely red because that is what the consumer wants.”
Cranberry vines are submerged in water, where special equipment removes the berries from the vines. Once the berries are detached, growers use a pump to lift them out of the water. The berries are then transported to receiving stations and are typically turned into cranberry juice, dried cranberries or health supplements — some make their way to your Thanksgiving table.
Why multigenerational farms persist
Lochner believes Wisconsin’s cranberry growing success is in part due to its existing agriculture industry. The state already has the infrastructure and the expertise to grow crops, which is reflected in the abundance of multigenerational cranberry farms.
“I think we’ve got a heritage here within the grower community … we have any number of multigenerational farms, family farms that have been growing cranberries for four, five, even six generations,” Lochner says. “There’s a lot of that knowledge that is handed down from generation to generation.”
Rochelle Biegel Hoffman, a fifth-generation cranberry grower, believes the state’s sandy glacial deposits created the perfect natural ecology for native and agricultural cranberry cultivation.
“You can’t just grow a cranberry farm anywhere,” Hoffman says. “You have to have the right soil, you have to have access to water. There are a lot of variables that have to be in place before a cranberry farm can successfully grow.”
Hoffman says there “hasn’t been an overabundance or an underabundance of cranberry farms,” an aspect she believes has contributed to farms being successfully passed on from generation to generation.
Hoffman now owns Rooted In Red, her family’s farm in Wisconsin Rapids in the central part of the state. Hoffman says her family’s history in the industry began as an accident.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Hoffman’s great-grandfather Charles Dempze began growing cranberries as a farmhand when he was 12. Dempze eventually worked his way up to become the farm’s manager before owning it entirely. Dempze’s son, Gordon, began managing a second cranberry farm, Dempze Cranberry Co. when he returned from World War II. Today, Rooted In Red rests on the land that is Gordon’s legacy.
“I think that it provides a really great life to grow up on and is a special, very generational style industry, which is kind of unique,” Hoffman says. “When it comes to farming, there is a lot of farming that is generational, but cranberry is a particularly generational farm.”
Bristow’s farm — Russell Rezin & Son — was founded by her great-great-great-grandfather in 1918. Bristow’s father married into the family business and, despite having no farming experience, learned how to grow cranberries solely by working alongside family members.
“You can’t really go to school to learn how to grow cranberries. It’s all secondhand learning. You’re just learning from others and learning as you go along the way,” Bristow says.
Bristow began following her dad around the marsh at a young age. Despite working on the farm as a child, Bristow’s parents did not pressure her to stay after high school and instead encouraged her to find her own path. It took going to college and working jobs in baseball for Bristow to return to the farm.
“It’s truly a crop that, once you get to know and understand it, it’s just so fascinating that it’s hard to be pulled away from,” Bristow says.
Looking into the future
Although Wisconsin’s cranberry farms are rooted in tradition, growers are making room for innovation. Collaboration between growers and UW–Madison researchers allows farms to maximize the efficiency and sustainability of their harvests. Atucha works with the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association to determine what aspects of harvesting need to be researched.
“What kind of work should we be doing? What are the new needs that they have? What are the new problems that they are seeing and how can we partner to address those?” Atucha says.
Hoffman recognizes how valuable the researchers are at developing methods to sustainably grow crops. The research collaboration allowed Hoffman to implement precision farming, a method of producing more cranberries with a smaller footprint. Rooted In Red recently started using sensors across the farm to determine whether or not irrigation is necessary on a given day, allowing the farm to conserve water.
The opportunities to spur innovation fuel Hoffman’s passion for cranberry growing. By pursuing a doctoral degree in education sustainability, Hoffman hopes to learn how to improve the sustainability of cranberry production throughout the industry.
Hoffman is already making plans for her children to become sixth-generation cranberry growers. Rooted In Red’s family ownership allowed her kids to become involved at a young age: her 11-year-old and 12-year-old daughters actively participate in the family farm and help horticulture scientists perform nutrient and pest assessments throughout the summer.
“My goal as a parent is to keep the business as healthy as it possibly can be,” Hoffman says. “So if my kids decide and choose that they would like to be cranberry farmers in the future, they are able to do that.”
Timeline and featured photo by Charlie Hildebrand.