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In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

For a Veteran Coming Home, Cranberries Are a World Away From Military Duty

James Lake Cranberry Marsh

Returning to civilian life after military duty can be a shocking adjustment.  WXPR’s Emily Bright talked to one veteran who made that transition and is now doing something that seems totally different, growing cranberries in the Northwoods.

Benjamin Riker served two tours in Kuwait and Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard. When he returned home in 2009, he finished up his degree in early elementary education. He was married with a young son, and they had to figure out what came next.

"I was at a cross-roads where we didn’t know what we wanted to do as a family," Riker says. "I ended up getting a job offer from my dad who owns the marsh."

Ben Riker is now Assistant Manager of the James Lake Farm in Three Lakes, an organic cranberry farm his father had purchased two years before. Growing cranberries in Northern Wisconsin is a pretty far cry from detainee operations in Iraq, guarding members of Saddam Hussein’s old regime as they underwent trials at the high tribunal court. Riker had worked at a cranberry marsh before, and there’s an attitude that comes from military service that Riker says is helpful in any environment. He says military duty teaches you to be aware of your surroundings, assess risk, work at a fast pace, and keep the big picture in mind. You learn to appreciate a civilian work environment, and it’s especially nice if you like what you do.

“We are looking at a bunch of half-way ripe cranberries," he describes. "Picturesque. Blue skies with spotty clouds, green tree lines that haven’t changed into autumn colors yet."  

It’s late August, the day Riker gives me a tour of the marsh, driving his truck along the dike between cranberry beds. The place is utterly peaceful. You can hear the insects. A flock of geese waddles around, munching on bugs.

"You can kinda measure time by when the birds come in, or when certain animals like turtles pop their heads up and muskrats start running around," Riker explains. "You see the geese and they travel in pairs, and then before you know it, there’s one pair with four or six or eight goslings running around."

It’s a far cry from the combat zone.  Already, the warm days and the cold nights are helping the berries turn from white to red.

“You see that some are starting to turn red like this?" Riker says about the half-ripe berries,"Look at this one, you can see that the leaf print is just hanging right on it. It’s staying warm from the leaf and also getting shaded from the leaf. so you don’t… we got a long way to go.”

The marsh is home to a nesting pair of loons, and Ben sees cranes, eagles, and all sorts of wildlife. One reason for this huge resurgence of animals is that when Ben’s father John Riker bought the place in 2007, he turned the marsh organic.

Now Ben and his young family live on the cranberry marsh, and, like any farmer, his calendar year revolves around the growing season. In August, the 12-plus hour days of harvest still loom in the future. Already, the berries require around-the-clock attention. Tonight, Riker is on frost watch.

"We’ve got a couple probes that sit in the beds and those probes are hooked up to a transmitter and we have receivers in our bedrooms," he says. "Very loud, more annoying than a waa-waa alarm clock, way more annoying than that. You wake up, you go turn on the pumps, and that’s how you frost-protect."

The cranberries they harvest are sold as fresh fruit locally and to Twin Cities, Madison, Milwaukee. What’s not sold as fresh goes as grade 4 concentrate to make products like juice, facial scrubs, vitamins, and baby food.

Riker says he views food in a different way now.  "Yeah, I was actually looking at food differently at lunch," he describes.  "We  have a small garden, and I was eating one of the carrots at the garden. you just look at it and just wonder, who was the first person to test this out to make sure it was consumable? how did that happen?"

There are so many variables when it comes to growing food—weather conditions, insects, and acts of God—that keeping the big picture in mind is key. Riker says, sometimes you just have to step back and trust Mother Nature.

"Mother Nature kinda keeps everything on track. Even though we had a longer winter and even though we had less summer, or a shorter summer this year, we still got fruit, it still sized up okay, and it’s still gonna be a decent harvest. So it’s one of those things where mother nature knows what she’s doing."

Another mentality that comes from military service, Riker says, is being serious when you have to, and learning to take things with a certain amount of levity when you can. Harvest numbers were a little low this year, and the hectic weeks of cranberry harvest finished up earlier than anticipated. For now, Riker welcomes working at a calmer pace, as he and the marsh’s other year-round employees do end-of-harvest maintenance and, as he puts it, get the beds ready for winter slumber. The cycle begins again next year.

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