There’s a lot of bustle going on at Lake Nokomis Cranberries these days. It’s harvest time at this 317-acre farm, and the crop looks good. “We never really know what the numbers will be until the harvest is almost over,” said Mike Roth, who has run machinery at Lake Nokomis Cranberries for the last five years. “It’s sort of hard to pinpoint until you actually get into the beds but overall the berries and numbers of them look good so far.”
Mike and his crew were busy last week preparing the machinery for the harvest which at Lake Nokomis will last well into October. The actual harvest started on Monday, Sept. 17, and by Wednesday it was well underway.
This particular marsh is owned and operated by Dave Zawistowski. He started there as a field hand in 1973 and then bought the farm in 1977 when it had only 20 beds. Since that time he has expanded the operation to include close to 70 beds on 317 acres. These beds range in size from about three acres to some that are close to 10. “We’re not really sure how old the oldest beds are here,” said Mike. “But a bed, if it is managed right, can produce berries for 20 years or more.”
The culture of this fruit is interesting indeed. Many people believe that cranberries grow in water but that’s not true. Cranberries grow in beds lined with sand and actually produce on vines. Water is used in the fall when the beds are flooded. Over each bed Mike drives a specially designed tractor outfitted with a custom made beam fitted with L-shaped hooks that knock the cranberries off their vines. These little red fruits have interior air pockets that allow them to float. Then workers don waders and place booms around the berries, corralling them toward a machine that cleans them and then dumps them into wagons where they are transported to a warehouse for more cleaning. Within hours the berries are on their way to plants where they are dried, or made into juice or sauce.
There are 21,000 acres of cranberries grown in 20 counties throughout the central and northern half of Wisconsin according to the Wisconsin Cranberry Association. That makes the Badger State number one in cranberry production. In fact cranberries are the number one fruit crop in both value and acreage in Wisconsin and 60 per cent of the crop worldwide is grown here. That has been a fact for the last 17 years. Other states that produce cranberries include Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington state. About 33 per cent of the cranberries grown in the United States are exported to such locales as the Baltic States, Turkey and Russia.
Economically this fruit delivers quite a punch for Wisconsin. It provides 3,400 jobs across the state and contributes $300 million annually to the state’s economy. Cranberries have quite a heritage in Wisconsin too. It is believed they were first harvested in the 1830s, even before Wisconsin became a state. Many marshes have been family owned for generations.
Partly because of this, these lands are carefully tended including environmentally. At Lake Nokomis, water is taken from the lake to flood the beds every fall and winter. That means eventually this water flows back into the lake and great precautions are taken to make sure it is just as clean, if not cleaner, than when it was drained into the beds. Cranberry marshes are home to many Northwoods creatures such as loons, cranes, fish, egrets, herons and deer. “We see wildlife on these beds all year long,” said Mike. “You just never know what is going to be out here day after day.”
Like any farm, even during non-harvest time, Lake Nokomis Cranberries is busy. On part of the marsh are large hills of sand and compost, dug out from beds that do not produce up to standards anymore. These beds are dredged out (Dave sells this compost and soil as premium materials for lawns and gardens) and are relined with a new a fresh layer of sand. Cranberry vines can be picked off older beds and readily root in this new area. In addition, several different varieties of cranberries are planted throughout the farm which spreads out harvest times and, depending on the variety, can boost disease resistance.
Cranberries are named after their blossom which looks like a crane in shape and when these blossoms come on the plants in the spring, bees are brought in to pollinate the plants. “It’s important we have plenty of bees here when the vines blossom,” said Mike. “If pollination doesn’t happen or is not thorough the crop numbers suffer.”
But perhaps the biggest contribution of this little ruby colored berry is its health benefits. It’s loaded with antioxidants and scientists and nutritionists are discovering that this berry can aid in a multitude of ways including decreasing cancer, fighting urinary tract infections and gum disease.
Despite all the hustle going on at Lake Nokomis Cranberries these days, the public is invited to watch the harvest for themselves. Dave has opened up his farm to visitors and provides free guided tours. He also has a wide selection of cranberry goodies, including cranberries by the pound, jams and jellies, cookbooks, lotions and creams and even wine. In fact, this far seeing entrepreneur is thinking about opening a winery in the near future. And guess what kind of wine will likely be made there? “We sell lots of cranberries to people who make wine out of them,” said Mike. “We’d like to try making it here as another way to promote the crop.”
Editor’s note: To find out more about Lake Nokomis Cranberries, their tour schedule and when they are open, check out their website at lakenokomiscranberries.com. To see more pictures of the harvest go to starjournalnow.com.