Wisconsin's Fall Cranberry Harvest
Each September, the nation's biggest cranberry crop rises in central Wisconsin's marshes—and a flood of travelers shows up to celebrate the culture and cuisine
focused on the tart star of the show.
As we bump down the sandy trail in Mary Brazeau Brown's pickup, we startle a sandhill crane. The gangly bird lifts slowly on its 6-foot wingspan, with a rattling squawk and a flash of the crimson patch on its head-a red mimicked by the autumn cranberries nestled in the marsh below.
The berry's name actually derives from "craneberry," not because of the color but due to the cranberry flower's resemblance to a crane's head and bill. When Mary, third-generation owner of the Glacial Lake Cranberries marsh 15 miles west of Wisconsin Rapids in central Wisconsin, sees a crane in her crop, she reacts nothing like a farmer shooing crows from the corn. She likes having the cranes around. "They eat the grubs and bugs that eat cranberry roots," she says.
This is good country for cranes and cranberries. I'm in the land of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, the former bottom of a glacial lake. Flat, sandy, acidic, it's a cranberry paradise. This Wisconsin region yields half the U.S. berry crop. And during autumn's harvest, highways full of Midwesterners gather like flocks of migratory cranes to tour marshes and feast on foods using the tart berry.
Cranberry farming started here in the mid 1800s, when loggers discovered wild cranberries in the underbrush. An industry was born, pitting Midwest growers against those in New England. In 1880, Mary's grandfather, T.W. Brazeau, rode the train to these marshes to pick berries, eventually founding his own company.
We reach a flooded cranberry bed where Mary's son, Stephen, directs men and machinery for the harvest. Stephen wears rubber waders and moves through a hip-deep floating mat of shiny red marbles. The beds of vines are filled with water during fall, when cranberries are plump and ready to pick. A machine resembling a riding lawn mower with monster-truck tires and a giant eggbeater on the front drives through, churning the water and knocking berries off vines below. Thanks to four tiny air pockets in each berry, cranberries float to the surface. Two tractors drag a boom across the flooded bed, herding berries toward men who rake them into a vacuum hose, which deposits the berries into a dump truck that carts them away for washing and shipping.
Find a hard-working farm, and you'll likely find equally earnest cooks nearby who wield gastronomic wizardry with that produce. Eager to try their work, I drive 40 miles to Warrens for the 37th annual Cranberry Festival. It's one of six small-town harvest-time cranberry fairs held in Wisconsin, but Warrens' is by far the granddaddy. Celebrated in late September, the festival inflates Warrens' population from 300 to more than 100,000. An hour ago, I stood in a marsh with ducks splashing and leaves rustling loose from trees, but here I jostle for space in a human river of commerce at the bustling bazaar.
I'm in the market for food and find it at a booth selling cranberries jubilee-fried cranberries coating a wedge of vanilla ice cream for a dollar. I indulge in this tart-sweet creamy pleasure, then head to the town center where a row of vendors sells cranberries in every form imaginable: fist-size cranberry cream puffs, chocolate-covered cranberries, cranberry cheddar cheese and more. I plunk down $4 at Squire's Corn Dogs for cranberries-on-a-stick-battered, fried and rolled in cinnamon-sugar.
Ready for a break from snacking, I step inside the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center, the town's year-round cranberry museum. I learn that cranberries contribute $350 million to the Wisconsin economy each year, and Menominee Indians picked cranberries and sweetened them with honey or maple sugar. I settle on a stool in the ice cream parlor upstairs to resume eating with tart, butter-crust cranberry pie topped with cranberry ice cream and served with cranberry coffee.
As I savor my coffee, I get a hot tip from the guy next to me: "Head over to the machine shed to see something you won't see anywhere else." There I behold the blue-ribbon champion of the Biggest Cranberry of Show contest. It's a cranberry the size of … well, a very large grape, about 6 grams. That's huge for cranberries.
The next morning, I follow flat roads along the 29-mile Cranberry Biking Trail, passing wildlife areas and cranberry farms. A thick fog transforms marshes into ethereal misty moors as staccato crane bugles echo in the stillness. I recall Mary telling me that cranes eat the bugs but never touch the berries. Couldn't they use the nutritious kick of a cranberry for their 1,000-mile migration? As for me, I head back into town for the all-you-can-eat breakfast in the St. Andrew's Catholic Church basement-sausages and hotcakes, served with cranberry syrup, of course.
To see cranberry recipes, click here.
Planning your cranberry visit
For a listing of additional cranberry festivals and marsh tours, visit wiscran.org and look up events under About Cranberries.
Warrens Cranberry Festival, last full weekend in September. Three miles of shopping at arts and crafts booths and a flea market, and more than 100 food vendors with cranberry creations of all kinds. (608) 378-4200; cranfest.com
Cranberry Colorama, check website for date. Small-town community gathering highlighted by tours of a local cranberry marsh and the Taste of Harvest, a luncheon of cranberry foods from professional chefs and local restaurants. (888) 626-9877; manitowishwaters.org
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2012. Prices, dates, and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)