Seeing Red in Wisconsin
The little red berry, Wisconsin 's official state fruit, is the state's number one fruit crop, both in size and economic value. The cranberry, once called "crane berry" by settlers because of its blossom's resemblance to the sandhill crane, was first harvested in Wisconsin around 1860 by Edward Sacket in Berlin, Wisconsin. Today, more than 250 growers produce cranberries throughout central and northern Wisconsin. During the early 1890s, the center of the Wisconsin cranberry industry shifted to the Cranmoor area, just west of Wisconsin Rapids.
Cranberries are grown on 21,000 acres across 20 counties in Wisconsin. The sand and peat marshes in central and northern Wisconsin create the perfect growing conditions for cranberries.
Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water. Berries form on perennial vines in thick mats on the ground and turn red only in the fall. Wisconsin cranberries grow in sandy bogs and marshes. Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines. They are low, creeping shrubs or vines up to 7 ft long and 2 to 8 in in height. They have slender, wiry stems that are not thickly woody and have small evergreen leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with very distinct reflexed petals, leaving the style and stamens fully exposed and pointing forward. They are pollinated by bees. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant; it is initially light green, turning red when ripe. It is edible, with an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.
In the Fall in Wisconsin, cranberry marshes are flooded with water to aid in harvesting. Because the tart, tiny berries contain a pocket of air, when the marsh is flooded, the berries float to the surface to be picked up by harvesting equipment. Cranberries are harvested each year from late September through October.
The most picturesque time of year on a cranberry farm is during fall harvest with the seemingly endless sea of red floating cranberries. Visitors head for central and northern Wisconsin to watch machines comb through vines and workers in hip waders corral the just-plucked crimson fruit onto conveyer belts.
Drive up to Wisconsin Rapids and take a DIY tour along the Cranberry Highway, winding almost 50 miles along country roads skirting cranberry farms, some in the same family for three or four generations. You'll see trucks being loaded with berries bound for your Thanksgiving table, or that cocktail you might sip before dinner.
Gawking from the roadside has limitations. For a closer look — and an education in Wisconsin's state fruit — take a guided tour of a marsh. There are plenty to choose from. Wisconsin grows more than 60 percent of the U.S. cranberry crop and has enough cranberry farms to cover the entire city of Chicago and a few suburbs, too. Only a few acres flood, though. The rest is support land: wetlands, woodlands and such.
Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, jam, and sweetened dried cranberries.
Choose a vacation home base for touring the beautiful Wisconsin countryside, there are many to choose from.