The Wetherby Cranberry Company of Warrens, WI

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

If you plan to marry a Wisconsin cranberry farmer, prepare for a double commitment.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“My husband Jim was from the old school where you get down on your knees and propose,” recalls Wetherby Cranberry Company co-owner Nodji Van Wychen. “And I said: ‘Well, you have to marry the marsh and myself, because we go together.’”

Jim took Nodji up on the offer, and the two have spent decades operating one of the most publicly accessible cranberry marshes in the state of Wisconsin.

Van Wychen’s family relationship with her 110-acre farm, located near the intersection of highways 90 and 94, goes back nearly a century. “This marsh was established in 1903,” she says. “My mother has lived here all but two weeks of her life, and she’s 94. She was born on another marsh, and then they moved here, and she’s been here ever since.”

If you want to buy bags of fresh cranberries, straight from the grower, the Wetherby operation in Warrens, WI is your destination. Not merely because the quality or price concerns, mind you — there simply isn’t an alternative.

While their many cranberry farming colleagues solely produce fruit for juice and dried cranberries for big co-ops such as Ocean Spray, the Van Wychens of Wetherby have doggedly stuck to the fussier method of production that yields bags of large, intact berries — perfect for sales to the consumer.

For the serious home cook, cranberries are the fall and winter counterpart to rhubarb — they can be added to almost any dish, sweet or savory, to bring a bright, tart note that brings depth to pie or salad, and complements just about anything pork- or fowl-related.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Before they hit the typical Thanksgiving turkey breast, the berries are harvested by flooding the rectangular marshes, which are sunk several feet below the surrounding terrain.

A mechanical raking machine rides the marshes to harvest fresh fruit — resembling a miniature combine, it shakes the fruit loose and deposits it into harvest boats which are gently lifted via hydraulics and emptied into dump trucks. The trucks then back up a rather sizable man-made sand hill so that the fruit can spill down a chute through the roof of the Wetherby plant; cold air fans dry the fruit out, and various mechanical sorting processes ensure that large, debris-free berries are selected.

New FDA regulations spelled an end to the use of traditional wooden machinery to sort the berries — now Wetherby uses a digital behemoth, an optical sorter that costs as much as a house.

“We used to have 10-12 ladies who were all hand sorting when we had the wooden mills,” recalls Van Wychen. “The younger women still had full-time jobs, so we had to rely on our elderly women, and they got so elderly they had to retire, and you couldn’t find replacements.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The Marsh in Bloom

In late June, harvest is still months away, and the fields are in full flower, carpeted with waves of tiny pink and red blossoms that resemble the heads of birds.

“Early Dutch settlers, when they saw cranberry blossoms, thought they resembled the head of a sandhill crane,” says Van Wychen. “So they named them ‘crane-berries,’ later shortened to cranberries.”

For a few weeks in early summer, the fields abound with bees working out of crate-like hives imported by beekeepers. Beekeepers reap a few for helping to polinate the crop, and make locally popular cranberry honey; cranberry growers see their yield increase dramatically thanks to the bees’ efforts.

“Years ago we used to rent about two hives per acre,” says Van Wychen. “This year we’re renting five hives per acre.” Wind pollination also helps the plants prosper; on a perfect day with moderate temperatures and a light breeze, hard-working bees help set the stage for a bumper crop.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The more flowers there are for the bees to pollinate, the better the given crop yield will be.

“I learned a lot of things from my grandfather, and one of the things he told me is to estimate a crop by how many berries you harvest from each upright [flower stalk],” says Van Wychen. “Three berries is a good crop, two berries per upright fair, one berry, poor. To be honest, that holds pretty true. It’s not a scientific way of doing it, but for the most part you can estimate your crop fairly well.”

Red Berries and Black Ink

Wisconsin, with cold winters, the availability of coarse sand and peat acidic base, and relatively mild summers, is a perfect environment for cranberry cultivation. Over the decades, the fruits have become a major part of the state’s agricultural bounty — according to the WI State Cranberry Growers Association, the cranberry industry is the state’s largest fruit industry, contributing nearly $350 million annually to the Wisconsin economy and supporting roughly 7,200 jobs.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“Cranberries are Wisconsin’s number one fruit crop, and we’re the leader in the nation for production for the past 14 years,” says Van Wychen, who, along with her husband, has done much work to develop the industry and its growers’ associations. “People don’t realize we’ve been the leader for that many years. We far out-do Massachusetts. Last year, Wisconsin produced 55 percent of the world’s supply of cranberries.”

The growth of the industry hasn’t been trouble free. A cranberry price boom in the late ’90s saw an unhealthy gyration in the economics of growing the fruit.

“We really peaked out at about $80 per [100-pound] barrel, or $.80 per pound,” recalls Van Wychen. “It was actually too high. It caused the industry at that time… we had a lot of outside investors who thought: ‘Oh this is good money to be made.’ We had doctors and lawyers and so forth buying marshes, creating marshes, putting on marsh managers.”

What goes up, of course, must come down.

“Then all of a sudden we had an oversupply because our marketing didn’t keep up with the production,” says Van Wychen. “In one year we went, on our marsh, down from 80 cents a pound to 10 cents a pound. Around 1999, or so. That’s a nosebleed roller coaster, I’ll tell ya. From that point on we’ve been gradually working our way back up — last year we had high 30s, low 40s.”

Van Wychen’s marsh does better than 200 barrels of cranberries per acre, slightly beating the state average for productivity. Over the past few years, Wetherby has moved more and more of its production to fresh fruit — from about 1/4th to 1/2th this season. With robust connections to markets in Minneapolis, Madison, and other major Midwestern cities — plus a robust tourist trade that turns out each fall for the harvest — Wetherby can sell to the public for a considerably higher price than it can to a co-op.

Its largest wholesaler is Metro Produce of Minneapolis. “They said whatever you produce, we will be able to sell,” Van Wychen notes. “Plus we made such a financial investment with all our new equipment, like the optical sorter.”

Cranberries On the Table

Not surprisingly, cranberries have long been thoroughly enmeshed in Central Western Wisconsin cuisine.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“The first time my husband brought me to his parents’ home on the dairy farm,  they were serving the typical farmers’ Sunday noon dinner,” she recalls. “They had the chicken, and mashed potatoes, and the gravy, and the corn… and they had a great big bowl of cranberry sauce, which I had assumed his mother had made just to impress me. And I thought: ‘Well, I’m impressed.’ But then I come to find out later they always had a big bowl of cranberry sauce on the table for their Sunday chicken dinners.”

Thus the marriage provided a limitless supply of cranberries to an eager consumer.

“I told him: ‘This is an added benefit, you don’t have to have it just on Sundays at noon anymore,” says Van Wychen. “You can have it every day of the week, three times a day! And he does. He really loves cranberries.”

“He starts in the morning and he’ll typically have cranberry sauce on his oatmeal. He also puts cranberry sauce on his cottage cheese. Sounds awful, but it’s really very good… then he’d end the day with a bowl of vanilla ice cream with cranberry sauce on it. In Wisconsin, we call that the Bucky Badger sundae.”

Cranberry Crock Pot Pork
Reprinted from Year ’round Cranberry Recipes from the WI State Cranberry Growers Association

2 ½ pounds pork tenderloin (all fat removed)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh cracked pepper
1 ½ fresh thyme leaves, minced
¾ cup cranberry juice
2 tbsp soy sauce
Zest of 1 orange, no pith
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped cranberries, fresh or frozen
⅓ cup brown sugar

1. Spray a 5-6 qt. crock pot with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Place pork in crock, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and thyme.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the cranberry juice, soy sauce, and zest.

4. Stir in the cranberries and brown sugar, pour the juice mixture over the pork.

5. Cook on low setting for 7 hours, or until the meat is tender, basting occasionally.

6. Slice and serve with the sauce.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table


Great Aunt Ruby’s Spiced Cranberry Muffins

Yields 16 muffins
Reprinted from Year ’round Cranberry Recipes from the WI State Cranberry Growers
Association

2 cups flour
½ cup sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground coriander
2 eggs
5 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup milk
2 cups coarsely chopped cranberries

1. Preheat oven to 375°.

2. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, oil, and milk until well blended. Add to flour mixture and beat until just moistened. Stir in cranberries.

4. Fill greased muffin cups 2/3 full.

5. Bake at 375° for 20 minutes.

Wetherby Cranberry Company

3365 Auger Rd
Warrens, WI 54666
608.378.4813
Open to the public for tours, Harvest Day festival, and direct sales; see webpage for details

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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15 Comments

  1. Great post. Wonderful photography.

    We went to the cranberry Festival last year in Warrens, and found it very difficult to actually find fresh cranberries!

    I wonder what percent of the crop actually stays in Wisconsin, versus being shipped to Ocean Spray and other large companies to be processed and sold over the world.

  2. What a lovely story. I never knew how cranberries got their name.
    I’ve made the drive to Chicago often, driving by the Warrens exit along the Interstate. I always thought it would be fun to attend their Festival sometime.
    The pictures are beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Great story & photos! The flowers really do look like little cranes.

  4. Wonderful! I’ve been buying Wetherby berries at the Dane County farmers’ market for the past couple years; I always stock up at four one-pound bags for $9. I’m always a little sad when I use my last bag.

    Fifty-five percent of the world’s supply?! Unbelievable. I love Wisconsin!

  5. We are interseted in buying about 200 pounda of cranberries could you let me know if this is attainable thru you and if so how do we go about it We live in the Wausau Area and are will to drive to purchse them please contact me I would greatly appreciate it Mary Pasholk 715-432-0859 or e-mail me @ marknmarywine@yahoo.com Thank You

  6. OK, so, you talk about putting cranberry sauce on lots of different foods. How about showing us a recipe for that dish? Thanks, Bob.

  7. Vanessa Gordon09/20/2009Reply

    I was so happy to come across this article. I have been taking my four children to the Wetherby’s harvest day, each year, for the last decade or more. My youngest one, has literally, been going every year she’s been alive! I always leave with tons of cranberry’s – which my friends love because I dole them out as gifts. It’s a wonderful Autumn tradition, followed by a drive to admire the changing colors. Sadly, my family is in a transition of moving to Florida, and this may be the last year we can go. But we’ll be there again this year, no doubt! :) I’m appreciative that Wetherby’s does this – it’s truly a Wisconsin treat.

  8. Richard A. Ditzler10/10/2009Reply

    Please write me with your hours and your address.We will be in the Dells for a Week Oct.17-24. We would like to drive up to Warren during the week and purchase a little over a 100 lbs. of your fresh 1st. or 2nd type berrys . Please let me know the price of each. If you,re the place i hope you are,we have been to your farm before and loved it ,we also bought some of your good wine. Please reply soon as we will be leaving here on the 17th. Thank You! Richard A. Ditzler 824 So. 15th Ave. Freeport,IL.61032 815-233-2626 E-mail spark2626@verizon.net

  9. harlan hansen10/16/2009Reply

    I purchased some of your wine last week on a bus tour from fort dodge iowa and would like to purchase a case of it. would you let me know how i can do this. thanks harlan

  10. Try calling or emailing the Wetherby Cranberry Co. Their contact information is online: http://www.freshcranberries.com/id4.html

  11. I thought this story sounded familiar and then noticed I’d left a comment last summer when I read it. But now, there is one more thing that came to my mind. It’s just the right time of year to turn off the Interstate at Warren and make a short drive to a little apple orchard (can’t remember the name, but there used to be a sign along the interstate for the orchard) where they have such delicious caramel-apple sundaes.

  12. Jeanette Tichawa10/31/2009Reply

    I purchased a bottle of your Cranberry wine at the Cranberry fest this year and just opened it to find that there was a hole started already in the cork? I didn’t think much of it until I tasted the wine. It was BAD! I have had your wine in past years and I believe something must have gone wrong in the way it was bottled.
    We traveled a long way for the Fest and I am really disappointed.

  13. Greetings,

    I have been buying your cranberries for years after finding you at the Farmers Market in Madison. This year I ordered two cases. They arrived as gorgeous as ever! Sadly, I wish I ordered more…as I used them at my inn as the guest love them. Do you have anymore, post Thanksgiving, fresh or frozen?

    Thank you.
    Jan Coulson

    ps. Happy Holidays!

  14. kathy kruger08/16/2013Reply

    i found your site on line last winter, hoping to find some cranberries to be shipped to me. alas, i was too late.

    i will be visiting your site this fall, and expect to order cranberries to use thoughout the year until fall of 2014

    i now live in MN, but am a cheese head through and though. and us cheese heads love our cranberries.

    if you have an online newsletter that will alert me when shipments are available, please add me to your list

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