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The Fall Cranberry Harvest; Working the Bogs

“…We work around the clock…it’s not a typical job where you’re at work or you’re not at work. We’re always kind of working, it’s definitely a lifestyle job, so we at least have a great lifestyle and take time off and do great things and go to the coffee shop in the morning and come to work in the morning whenever we want, in theory, but there’s always things to do. The more you put in the more you get out…”

That’s Steven Bartling.  He has been part of the cranberry business for 28 years and is now a fourth generation owner of their family farm, Bartling’s Manitowish Cranberry Co., in Manitowish Waters.

I met up with Steven in early October when they were about three fourths of the way through their harvest. He gave me the tour of their multi acre property and let me tag along to see how cranberry harvesting is done...

“Wisconsin cranberries encompass 60 percent of the world market in cranberries, so this is why the Wisconsin state fruit is the cranberry. This is an exciting time of year for us, a lot of stuff going on, picturesque days, cranberries, lots of movement, energy, people working hard to bring in this crop. So it’s pretty exciting…”

The Bartling’s marsh started in the 40’s as 4 acres, but has since grown to nearly 190 acres. To put that into perspective, Steven says the average marsh in the United States is only 18 acres.

“…We are at our Northern property here, it’s a 46 acre property, of a standard Wisconsin variety called ‘Stevens.’ Our family farm started in 1946 and it’s grown over 4 generations. My brother and myself, David, run the show and the day-to-day operations. This is our 70th harvest, so that is pretty exciting.”

Steven says this year is an average year for them…

“…so the state average for cranberries is about 250 barrels per acre and that’s about what we’re thinking we’re going to be for this year. So a barrel is 100 pounds of cranberries. Corn goes by the bushel, but we go by the barrel.”

Despite popular belief, cranberries are not an aquatic plant. They are considered “dry” fruits, meaning they grow on a 4 to 6 inch vine in a dry berry bog. The bogs are pumped with water from a nearby lake when it comes time to harvest.  At harvest time, a tractor like machine is brought through to knock the berries off the vines. Water is also pumped into the bogs in the winter to make ice to protect the vines from harsh temperatures.

The Bartling’s share property with six other growers, all of whom are commercial growers for Ocean Spray. The Bartling’s farm has about 55 bog beds, each being 3 and half acres in size.  Steven and I stopped at a bog his crew was working in…

“…What’s happening here, the cranberries are being pulled into the cranberry pump, which sucks them out of the bed they’re floating in, to hoppers where they’re de-trashed, de-watered and initially cleaned.”

He says water harvesting is the traditional way to harvest processed fruit.

“…So our market is for craisins and juice, but this is not the way it would have been done for fresh fruits. With fresh fruits it’s picked with different pickers, and very more labor intensive, so we don’t grow for that.”

It was time to pull the waders up. Steven helped me down the two wire mesh ramps that led into the berry bog they were working in.

“…So those are the vines that you feel…”

The bog was filled with water up to my knees. While we were standing in the bog his crew was corralling the berries with a long rope-like buoy called a cranberry boom. As the berries were corralled, they were being sucked up from the bog into trucks

The berries we were standing in less than 30 minutes ago were brought back to Bartling’s testing facility in gravity bins where they’re dumped into a holding pool and brought through a cleaning line. From the cleaning line, the cranberries are thrown into semi trailers and brought to Pittsville to be frozen and packaged into 1,300 pound boxes…

“…We’re one of the few people that do our cleaning and receiving on site. Most of the other growers around the state and around the country send their fruit to receiving stations to their handler; like Ocean Spray has bigger receiving stations in Babcock and in Tomah…”

Innovation and change in marketplace has led to enormous product, economic, environmental and social expansion. Less than 3% of Wisconsin’s cranberry crop is sold as fresh fruit--now famers are processing their fruits into juices and blends to reach different markets. Those markets are contributing over $300 million dollars to Wisconsin’s economy and supporting over 8,000 jobs around the state.

“..not a lot of youth taking over, but there is in this industry because it’s a lot of generations and a lot of history so there’s a lot of family members that come back to run the farm and it’s pretty exciting to be involved in the cranberry world”

Like the Bartling’s, cranberry growers are in it for the long haul. Their commitment is a solid part of the Northwoods community and economy holding leadership roles and offering best management practices.

“…All over North America, the families that have been involved in it for many, many years—6, 8, 10 generations-we’re 4 generations old here and we’re still pretty young in the scheme of things, but all the growers are like a big family. All our conversations and fun we’ve had together go back for generations and there’s not a lot of us…. So it’s pretty cool.”