A Nod to the Field Crew

Nov 16, 2018

The cranberry harvest in northern Wisconsin is typically six weeks long starting at the beginning of October and it can be grueling work.

Last year, Matthew Rethaber worked on the field crew for a cranberry harvest at James Lake Farms, an organic cranberry marsh in Three Lakes. As part of our series We Live Up Here, he shares memories of last year's harvest.

I am walking down the James Lake road path.  I stayed at the farmhouse last night.  I am still feeling really tired.

Last fall I got a job working on a cranberry marsh called James Lake Farms.

It’s a beautiful day. The tamaracks are a rusty gold color there is still a lot of leaves on the trees.

It’s a typical October day, and I walk down to the shop to make coffee.  Inside the breakroom, the field crew arrives in knit hats, flannels, and sweaters. We all sit at picnic tables, talking over the whir and screech of the boot dryer as we eat our oatmeal. We are instantly aware of our day's task since the dormant red wagons are unhooked and empty, their tongues lying in the dirt near the shop.  Beyond the steel hoppers, the start of what seems to be an infinite number of cranberry beds yet to be picked.

The field crew finds the least damp pair of chest waders on the dry rack. We rely on simple gear and a few provisions. For me a thermos of warm coffee.  For others peanut butter power balls.

For me being out here was a chance to stay in northern Wisconsin and camp with close friends.  I wanted to find out what drew other laborers to the harvest. For some it was the desire to work  specifically on an organic farm for others it was a chance to carry them through the next seasonal job. 

Crew member Coyote came to work here after spending time at the local survivalist school.

I started in the field, wearing the waders and pushing booms, using berry pushers to rake in the fruit get them in the wagon.  It's a lot of fun being out there in all kinds of weather any kind of weather but ice and lightning. I've been out there raking in berries with a snowstorm blowing.

Now Coyote works in the packing house. Many in this hardy community are willing to brave the cold and all kinds of fall Wisconsin weather to remain in tents, or pull-behind trailers and camp right on the Farm.

Crew member Ruthie Searles has worked here for 18 harvests.

Ruthie: I love those red cranberries

Matthew: What do you have to do be a cranberry harvester, what are the challenges? 

Ruthie: A lot of endurance and patienceMatthew: What’s the most challenging part of the end of the season? 

Ruthie: The ice and the snow and the cold. And leaky waders, if you have a pair of leaky waders it’s gonna be a big challenge for you. I’ve had these for two years so I’ve been really lucky not to puncture mine.

We suit up and pile into trucks carrying us to the cranberry beds.  First, we work in pairs to disconnect the long metal irrigation pipes. They must be removed so the harvest can begin. We are reaching down under the water and unclasping the buckle then swaying the long pipe channels over our shoulders.  We make it to the edges of the bed and hurl them over the ditches.  The water mains are then turned on and the beds begin to flood.

Once the water level is high enough we return with our one-of-a-kind picking tractors. The field crew remains in teams of two one atop the picking tractor to adjust the turning hydraulic head.  This head works much like a giant comb, it scoops the ripe berries right off the vine without much damage to the plant.  The driver is paying close attention, trying to avoid getting the machine tangled up in the vines.

The other team member is sloshing through the water ahead to guide the driver and be aware of deep holes or edges of the bed.  Other times the crew person remains at the side of the boat with a pitchfork quickly separating out debris sometimes reaching in with a darting hand to safely remove a hitchhiking frog. 

The machine tugs along several metal boats that the crew person has to quickly wrangle, attaching them by straps, hooks and chain links.  One boat for weeds another for the fruit. We’ve got our hoods up against the wind and rain as we wade through the icy water.  The day is a rapid series of filling up and dumping out, hitching and unhitching, then it's on to the next bed.

By the end of the long day, the big angled hoppers will be filled with several hundred bushels of cranberries and returned to the packaging millhouse. It’s a hustle to get the cranberries into the plant, where they will be sorted...and put into plastic clamshell cases.

It’s now getting dark on the James Lake Farms horizon. We on the field crew take off our waders and return them to the dry rack.

We trudge home back up the path to rest up for another day.

Matthew Rethaber is an educator and photographer from Doering, Wisconsin. He currently lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Still, he often makes the trek home to northern Wisconsin.

This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.