If you plan to marry a Wisconsin cranberry farmer, prepare for a double commitment.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Great Aunt Ruby’s Spiced Cranberry Muffins
Yields 16 muffins
Reprinted from Year ’round Cranberry Recipes from the WI State Cranberry Growers
2 cups flour
½ cup sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground coriander
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.
3365 Auger Rd
Warrens, WI 54666
Open to the public for tours, Harvest Day festival, and direct sales; see webpage for details