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Wisconsin Parent

Wisconsin Cranberry Harvest

Oct 24, 2014 03:00PM ● By Julie Henning
A fruit native to North America, the cranberry is known for its health benefits and distinctive and delicious taste. Producing over 65% of the cranberries grown in the United States, Wisconsin joins Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington in an annual 7 million barrel harvest.  Produced by 250 growers in 20 Central and Northern counties in what is known as the Central Sands Region, the Wisconsin cranberry harvest dates back to 1873 in what is now the town of Arpin.

Known for sandy soil and irrigated cropland, cranberries thrive in the Central Sands Region. A giant glacial lake that formed over 18,000 years ago, Wisconsin's Cranberry Country was once under 150 feet of water (in fact, the water table is only three feet under the surface today). Held back by the Baraboo Range, the glacial lake flooded in one week, carving the great sandstone formations in the Wisconsin Dells.

Topo Map

During the growing season (June through late September), the cranberry forms on a low-growing vine that thrives in the sandy soil. Growing an average of two inches per year, next year's bud has already formed before the fall harvest. The vine beds are flooded in the winter; once the ice is frozen, sand is poured on the ice as a way to anchor the vine and to stimulate new and upright growth. Sand also protects against insects and fungus spores.

Cranberry Bush

Glacial Lake Cranberries grows six different varieties of cranberries, which are harvested in the early-, mid-, and late-seasons. Early varieties went to Canada for Thanksgiving Day, which was Monday, October 13. Americans will enjoy the late-season variety next month. Here Phil Brown holds a just-picked cranberry still on the vine. During the harvest months Phil drives the Berry Bus on the cranberry operation he and his wife run all year long, giving interested visitors what he describes as the "best cranberry tour in the entire country." Reservations are required and tours run at 10:30AM and 1:30PM (the bus only holds 25 and seats cost $20/adults, $10 for kids 5-17, free for ages 4 and under).

Berry on Vine

When you visit Cranberry Country, one important word to remove from your vocabulary is "bog." Cranberries are grown in beds. Each bed is surrounded by a dike and a ditch. For every one acre of cranberry beds, Glacial Lake Cranberries maintains seven acres of forest and reservoir. At the beginning of the harvest, the beds are flooded with just enough water to run a tractor equipped with a bent tine harrower through the vines. Considered a major advancement in the modern day cranberry harvest, the harrower gently "combs" through the vine so that the fruit pops off and floats to the surface.


If you cut a cranberry in half, you will notice four air pockets. These pockets give the cranberry enough buoyancy to float in water. One indicator a cranberry is ripe is if the seeds are brown—the seeds are also high in antioxidants and Omega-3 and cranberry seed oil is considered a super healthy food. Cranberries are ranked based on their color and sugar percentage. In general, the smaller the berry, the less desirable the flavor. A "good" cranberry will bounce (go ahead and try it).

Cross Section Cranberry

Once the bent tine harrower has traveled through the entire bed, the field is flooded and a boom system consisting of a 4-inch floatation device attached to a skirt and a wire is is used to corral and contain the berries. This system is a scaled down version of what you would see being used to contain a major oil spill.


At Elm Lake Cranberry Company in Wisconsin Rapids, I was able to stand in the middle of a flooded bed just like the guys in this funny Ocean Spray commercial. Elm Lake Cranberry Company is one of many cranberry operations in Wisconsin that is a member of the Ocean Spray cooperative. I was able to have this experience as part of researching this story (sadly, it's not available to the general public). The bottom of the bed was uneven and, being October, the water was cold—I'm still amazed I didn't trip and fill up the waders for a more embarrassing photo op! 

Julie Henning in Cranberry Marsh

Once harvested, the berries are transported to a receiving location where they are washed and sorted (an optical scanner is used to identify foreign obstacles and inferior fruit). Because only 10% of the total cranberry harvest is consumed fresh, storing and freezing the remaining portion of Wisconsin's annual 4 million barrel harvest is a major undertaking.

Harvest Wash

Gardner Trucking and Cold Storage in Pittsville is the largest independent cranberry receiving station in the country. Here, a semi truck has just finished unloading a full load of cranberries into a giant holding bin. Berries flow through another washing station as they roll into the cold storage warehouse. Wisconsin cranberries are exported to France, Germany, Mexico, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Korea, China, and Japan.

Truck Unloading

Also in Pittsville, the Sweet and Dry division of Badger State Fruit Processing, Inc. is a premier supplier of dried cranberries. Interesting fact: in order to dry a cranberry, it must first be frozen. As the water crystals expand in the freezing process, they tear the tissues in the cell wall. This breakdown process both brings out the flavor and the nutritional benefits of the fruit.

Frozen Cranberry

Sweet and Dry leaves 65% of the juice inside the cranberry, as this percentage provides what they feel is the best flavor profile. In an impressive warehouse complex the berries are staged, weighed, batched, sliced, and dried into the most delicious dried cranberries you will ever taste. Demand is great enough to keep the facility running 24 hours a day.  Packages are available anywhere from 2 ounce packs to 500 pound bulk containers.

Cranberry Cusine

And, if you are one of so many of us who love a splash of red to garnish a meal, look for a bag of fresh berries in your local grocery store produce section. For more information on Wisconsin Cranberries, the cranberry industry, a regional cranberry festival, or your own trip to the Central Sands region, check out these great resources.

Wisconsin Cranberry Resources

Glacial Lake Cranberry Tours:

The Cranberry Experience:

Cranberry Highway:

Ancient Glacial Lake Wisconsin:

Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association:

Wisconsin Cranberry Festivals:

Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center: