TOMAH — Fresh cranberries are crunchy, especially when you walk on them.
Before I arrived at Habelman Bros., I had visions of flooded bogs, specialized machinery scraping the fruit from vines and crates of cranberries stacked in massive coolers.
I saw all of that and more last week but figured if I ventured into a bog it would be with waders. Instead, Ray Habelman, a fourth generation cranberry farmer, told photographer John Hart and me to take a leap of faith — over an 18-inch wide channel filled with water and onto a cranberry bed.
What we found was a mat of vines flush with nearly ripe fruit, resting on the dry ground.
"It's one of the big misconceptions," Habelman said of those who think cranberries grow in water. "This is pure sand, and it's pretty firm."
Cranberry beds are flooded with water at harvest time, but for most of the year the fruit grows like any other crop.
And Wisconsin does it better than anyplace else.
This year the state's cranberry growers are expected to harvest 4.5 million 100-pound barrels of cranberries, a 2 percent increase over last year. That translates to 58 percent of the U.S. cranberry crop and will mark the 18th consecutive year Wisconsin will be tops in production.
Massachusetts ranks a distant second with a forecasted crop of 2.1 million barrels, slightly lower than the 2011 crop, followed by New Jersey (542,000); Oregon (400,000) and Washington (142,000).
It also means big business. According to a study by UW-Madison, cranberries are grown on 21,000 acres scattered across 20 counties in central and northern Wisconsin that support 3,400 jobs. The economic impact is estimated at $300 million.
In the last five years, farmers have added about 4,000 acres of cranberry beds, replacing old beds with new plantings at a cost of $20,000 to $40,000 an acre and have been remodeling or expanding their packing facilities, said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, which is celebrating its 125th year.
But while yields have continued to rise, prices have been volatile. About 95 percent of the crop is used for juice, and those sales have been flat in recent years.
"They may be getting to a point of carrying a little too much inventory," Lochner said.
That's why cranberries, which are only grown in the U.S., Canada (1 million barrels annually) and Chile (200,000), are going global. In 2011, 33 percent of the total U.S. cranberry production volume was exported. Germany, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand are among the growing markets, while Asia holds billions of potential cranberry consumers.
"We have to introduce them to cranberries," Lochner said of foreign markets. "Once that educational process takes place, then we can have the companies that make products come in and start selling the fruit."
Those educational opportunities abound in Wisconsin.
The Warrens Cranberry Festival, the largest of its kind in the world, has consumed the village of about 300 people for 40 years. An estimated 150,000 people were expected for the three-day event that concludes today.
One of the highlights was the unveiling Friday of the world's largest cranberry-Craisin Whoopie Pie. According to the Tomah Monitor Herald, the ingredients for the 1 ton creation include 450 pounds of cake flour, 83 dozen eggs, 850 pounds of butter creme frosting, 125 pounds of dried cranberries and 300 pounds of fresh cranberries.
Other events around the state include the 33rd annual Stone Lake Cranberry Festival Friday and Saturday and the Eagle River Cranberry Festival next weekend. On Friday, a public harvesting event is scheduled at the Wetherby Cranberry Co. in Warrens, a farm that has been part of the cranberry landscape for more than 100 years.
Habelman's history is also deep.
Founded in 1907 on 13 acres in Tunnel City, the operation over the years has grown to 700 acres with additional farms in Millston and Tomah. About 75 percent of the crop is sold under the Habelman label, with the remainder going to private labels for companies like Costco, Sam's Club and Trader Joe's.
Habelman's is now the largest producer of fresh cranberries in the world and could harvest 130,000 barrels of cranberries this fall.
The Habelman operation is a mix of technology. Crews still don waders to assist mechanical harvesting machines. Massive dryers are used to ready the berries for packaging but optical scanners are used to help sort fruit that's not quite the right color. Cranberries waiting for packaging are stored in wooden crates that can each hold 300 pounds of the fruit and are stacked 14 high in monstrous coolers kept at 38 degrees.
One of the neatest parts of the process involves wooden machines from the 1920s. The company has 30 Bailey's cranberry separators each with seven small hurdles called jumps. Good cranberries bounce and clear the jumps, the bad ones fail and get tossed. Despite their age, they work like a charm and are a reminder of the rich history that cranberries played and continue to play in Wisconsin.
"They only run for two and a half, three months of the season," Habelman said of the working antiques. "They're pretty low maintenance and we take pretty good care of them. They're old but there's no reason they wouldn't last another hundred years."
Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.