That cranberry sauce you’re eating on Thanksgiving? Here’s where it probably came from

A visit to a Wisconsin cranberry farm shows how the berries are harvested.
Cassidy KallenbornThanksgiving Sides for TASTECranberry Squash
Cassidy KallenbornThanksgiving Sides for TASTECranberry Squash
Published November 14
Updated November 14

CRANMOOR TOWNSHIP, Wis. — Fifth-generation farmer Fawn Gottschalk bent over a bed of cranberry vines and showed visitors how old-timers used to harvest berries by hand, swinging a contraption whose tines led back to a wide bucket.

Against a light drizzle of rain, she wore a pale red poncho that almost met the tops of knee-high rubber boots and a pink ball cap bearing the familiar blue logo of Ocean Spray.

This part of central Wisconsin is more than a thousand miles from any ocean, but Gottschalk Cranberry Marsh is one of 275 individually owned farms in the state that belongs to the Ocean Spray cooperative. With other cranberry growers, Wisconsin is forecast to produce about 5.9 million 100-pound barrels of the fruit this year, or 65 percent of America’s crop and half of the world’s crop.

And the industry estimates that one-fifth of our country’s cranberry crop is consumed on one day — as cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.

Producing cranberry products requires some workers to wade through muddy water in knee boots and other workers to don hairnets, safety goggles and lab coats in a spic-and-span factory. In one large room, workers must wash their hands and then step in a device that sprays their shoes and pants cuffs with a sanitizer.

The Ocean Spray co-op has about 400 farms in other states and Canadian provinces, but Wisconsin is the top berry producer, with 21,000 acres utilized. The majority of that land is not planted with the perennial vines, but is used for reservoirs or lakes.

“Water access is most necessary for the vines,’’ said Gottschalk. “The vines grow well in sandy soil, or with some peat added.’’

That’s right: While the TV commercials show a pair of guys in waders standing knee-deep in a pond covered with floating berries, that view only occurs during the harvest season — roughly from mid-September to late October.

After the harvest as winter approaches in central and northern Wisconsin, the beds will be sprayed with water to form a light layer of ice — just as the strawberry farmers in Plant City do — to protect the plants from a fiercer cold.

After being planted, the vines take up to six years to produce berries, but they can remain productive for more than 50 years. And except for the harvest, the vines are growing in relatively dry soil.

The landscape in these marshes — only growers on the coasts call them “bogs,” according to Gottschalk — changes as fall arrives.

Then, the beds holding the vines are flooded with 4 to 6 inches of water. Specially fitted with long metal tines, tractors called harrows are driven through the marshes; the tines separate berries from vines.

Because the berries have air pockets, they float. More water is sent into the beds, and flexible barriers are placed into the ponds, to move the cranberries closer to a suction pipe.

This is when farm workers don their waders or over-the-knee boots and step into the ponds. The workers grasp ends of the barrier or a flat-bladed rake and continuously move the floating berries toward the pipe just beneath the surface.

The suction sends berries into a truck for a preliminary sorting of the fruit from pieces of vine and leaves, which is piped into a different truck to be used for composting.

Gottschalk uses dump trucks that can hold the equivalent of 225 to 275 of those traditional 100-pound barrels to carry the berries to a processing plant, one of three the co-op has in the state.

Fruit forward

Six miles from the Gottschalk marsh, the Wisconsin Rapids facility encompasses 250,000 square feet. That’s more than four times the size of a football field, including the end zones. Forklifts trundle about and lift 1,250-pound crates of berries to be dumped onto conveyor belts.

And this plant operates around the clock, 27 or 28 days a month, year-round.

The facility turns whole berries into Craisins (a sweetened, dried product) and, twice a year, concentrate for juices. Berries to be sold as whole are harvested slightly differently and are sent to other facilities. Cranberry sauce also is produced at another plant.

The Wisconsin Rapids plant processes 500,000 pounds of fruit daily. Production lines are redundant, so any malfunction does not halt all the work.

With a hint of pride in his voice, plant director Tom Tritt tells a visitor: “Absolutely nothing is wasted: (After sorting) we squeeze the berries to get juice, we re-squeeze them for the hulls and seeds, which go into cattle feed. The water generated from squeezing is used to help clean the plant.’’

“We can’t waste anything,’’ said Tritt. “We’re very heavily automated — there’s not much valve-turning by human hands.’’

Throughout a maze of pipelines, tanks, vats and conveyor belts, the fruit is hosed off and placed on belts through which slip pieces of vine or other detritus.

Sensors scan the individual berries, Tritt explained, and “anything too dark, too light or lacking density will be detected and the individual berry will be kicked out.’’

The better berries are separated, sliced, water is added, and enzymes are pumped in to separate the pulp in a pasteurizing process. Next, the pieces are dried and again sent past optical scanners as a further quality check. These berries are packaged as Craisins, to be boxed and sent on a vertical conveyor belt that spirals upward and toward shipping pallets.

Only about 5 percent of the state’s crop is sold as whole berries. But a drive through the Wisconsin heartland provides proof that versions of the berry can be consumed in solid or liquid form: baked into bread and pastries, added to chicken salad and green salads, served as chutney, worked into bread pudding and yogurt, crushed into smoothies, even mixed in the trendy Moscow Mule cocktail.

“We do get slightly more money for berries that are redder, but some people enjoy the less-red, less-tart berry,’’ said Gottschalk. “There are seven varieties of the berry, ripening or coloring up at different times, growing to slightly different sizes.

“But,’’ she said, “I don’t see much difference in taste.’’

For more information, including the names of farms offering tours, go to wiscran.org.

Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of the Tampa Bay Times. His four e-book anthologies are available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and smashwords.com.

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