Here’s a trivia question to stump your friends and family as you gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table:
What state grows more cranberries than any other in the U.S?
If they answer “Massachusetts,” as many Americans do, you can look at them with that smug smile like you just won an argument about politics.
Cranberries – it’s better than politics as a topic of conversation for your holiday gatherings, anyway.
Wisconsin is the nation’s leading producer of cranberries, a colorful fruit as ubiquitous as pumpkins in celebrating the season. The state produces about 4.18 million barrels of cranberries a year, more than half of the world’s cranberry crop.
Here’s another trivia question: What do you call the water-filled area where cranberries are harvested? If your dinner companions respond with “bogs,” let loose with that haughty look of superior intellect.
On the east coast, they are called bogs, but here in the Midwest, they are called marshes.
OK, now that you’ve alienated all of your dinner guests with your cranberry-knowledge superiority, let’s talk about this seasonal phenomenon of Wisconsin cranberries and make plans for next fall when you’ll want to take a road trip to central Wisconsin, don some waders and pretend that you are the Ocean Spray Cranberry dudes for an afternoon.
Cranberries love sandy soil, an abundant resource in central Wisconsin along the Wisconsin River. Base yourself in Wisconsin Rapids, which is a center point on the Cranberry Highway, a 50-mile loop drive that covers both State Highway 173 and Highway 54. Stop in Warrens to explore the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center (608-378-4878; discovercranberries.com).
Wisconsin is home to about 250 cranberry growers, but not all of them welcome visitors during harvest. Jamie Biegel’s family farm, Dempze Cranberry Company/Rooted in Red, is one of about a half dozen that will load you up in a wagon, drive you around the marshes and answer all sorts of questions about our holiday’s favorite fruit.
The most common misconception that Jamie hears from visitors is that they grow in water. That’s not the case. Cranberries grow in sandy soil, hidden under soft green vegetation. In June and July, the vines bloom, and growers bring in thousands of pollinators to do their thing. That’s a visually beautiful time to visit central Wisconsin if you can’t make it in October.
But just a few days before harvest in late September or early October, the growers flood the marsh with about two feet of water. Cranberries are hollow, so they just pop off the vine and float to the surface. Then a farm worker takes a thing that looks like a leaf blower and rounds ‘em up in a corner where they are then sucked up on a conveyor belt into a truck.
Jamie Biegel’s great-grandfather started the business in 1900 and they’ve recently turned the old cranberry warehouse into an event center and gift shop. They also have about two dozen pairs of waders, from kids to adults, that will allow you to wade right out into the sea of bobbing red berries.
Then, grab a handful of berries and throw them in the air for no other reason than it’s a lot of fun.
Put that picture on your holiday greeting card and all over social media this time of year. It should make everyone smile.
Wisconsin growers that offer tours:
Dempze Cranberry Company/Rooted in Red; 715-544-7438; rootedinred.co
Lake Nokomis Cranberries, Eagle River; 715-479-6546; lakenokomiscranberries.com
Manitowish Waters Cranberry Marsh Tours; manitowishwaters.org
Splash of Red Cranberry Tours, Pittsville; 715-884-6412 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (operated by the Pittsville FFA).
Wetherby Cranberry Company, Warrens; 608-378-4813; freshcranberries.com
For recipes and nutritional facts about Wisconsin cranberries, visit wiscran.org.
For travel information, visit TravelWisconsin.com.