Beyond the bog: A look at cranberry production in Wisconsin

Wetherby paints the farmers' market red

It’s not hard to find Wetherby Cranberry Co. at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Not only does the third-generation cranberry farm hold a prime spot on Pinckney Street (right across from The Old Fashioned), the booth is a can’t-miss display of red.

“Everyone is in red on Saturdays,” says Jenna Van Wychen, who runs Wetherby with the rest of the Van Wychen family. “Fresh red cranberries, red clothing — everything red for the berry.”

The berry’s bright red color is right at home in the Badger state, which produced an estimated 5.6 million barrels of the U.S.’s 9.1 million barrels of cranberries in 2017.

Wetherby Cranberry Co. is one of more than 250 growers that produce cranberries in central and northern Wisconsin, and its operation is an example of the 21,000 acres across 20 counties in the state that grow Wisconsin’s official state fruit and its No. 1 fruit crop, both in terms of size and economic value.

For nearly 25 years, Wetherby Cranberry Co. has driven from Warrens, Wisconsin — the state’s cranberry capital and permanent location of the Wetherby farm — to Madison, Wisconsin, from the second Saturday in October through the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Its cranberries, sold fresh or sweet and dry, reach the market table as soon as two days after leaving the fields.

There’s a lot more to cranberry production than what you might see in Ocean Spray’s lighthearted commercials featuring cranberry farmers thigh-deep in a bog. It’s hard work.

“We work all year round, and I would think everybody in agriculture would say that the harvest is the reward,” says Van Wychen.Beyond the bog: A look at cranberry production in Wisconsin

Wetherby’s harvest is off-and-on from the middle of September to Nov. 1. Since its first harvest in 1905, the company has remained among the 5 percent of Wisconsin cranberry growers that harvest their fruit for fresh consumption. And because this form of harvesting is more labor intensive — the Van Wychen family tends to more than 120 acres of cranberry vines and a 75-acre marsh — that means all hands are on deck.

“We harvest just about seven days a week,” says Van Wychen. “There are about 20 of us in our family, and it does take all of us during the fall to really make it happen.”

It’s not just a family affair, though. The farm invites the public onto its grounds to share in Harvest Day (held Oct. 6 or the first Saturday in October), when harvesting a select number of cranberry beds is demonstrated from start to finish, whether rain or shine (or snow).

“We do this for the people. We do this for the customers. They are just terrific,” says Van Wychen.

Wisconsin accounted for 62 percent of the country’s cranberry production in 2017, and Wetherby is one producer that sends cranberries beyond the state borders to reach dinner tables all over the United States.

“It’s a pleasure to hear our cranberries arrived safely in California or New York or Florida, and they’re beautiful,” says Jenna. “We take great pride in that.”

While harvest season is the company’s most eventful time of year (Wetherby also sits first in the farmer’s row at the Warren’s Cranberry Festival), the Van Wychen family has to laugh when marshgoers ask if they stay busy during the offseason.

Van Wychen, for example, sits on the board of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. The family also works to educate both Wisconsin and national clientele about the benefits of using cranberries year-round, as the crop is in surplus in the U.S.Beyond the bog: A look at cranberry production in Wisconsin

“It’s not just something you can cook with in the fall or have at your Thanksgiving table,” explains Van Wychen. “It’s something you can certainly have in your house all year.”

Wetherby also has a contract with Ocean Spray, the world’s leading producer of cranberry juice. Its products, ranging from fresh cranberries to cranberry sauce, are available not only during harvest season, but year-round in grocery stores nationwide.

The Van Wychen family must also work to get ahead of Mother Nature during the offseason, as no two years are the same. Ensuring cranberries make it through the winter is not an easy task.

“Nature certainly throws us a few curveballs once in a while, but since cranberries are a perennial crop, we work very hard to try and stay ahead of those,” says Van Wychen.

But the preparation is always met with reward, whether with a successful crop or simply the reaction from customers — especially, Van Wychen says, at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

“We have a presence [at the market],” says Van Wychen. “People call and email. They make sure we are going to be there that first Saturday.”