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WisBiz In-Depth: Busy times for cranberry growers

By Gregg Hoffmann

OAKDALE – The last few weeks have been busy times for Kurt Rutlin, his entire family and the extended “family” of cranberry growers.

Rutlin, a second generation operator of about 350 acres in marshes in Monroe County, is hustling to harvest his berries before the deep freeze of winter comes.

Growers around the state are working hard just like Rutlin. Together, they produce more cranberries than any other state in the country. In fact, Wisconsin growers produce around 300 million pounds of the fruit annually, more than half the 575 million pounds consumed per year in the U.S.

It’s estimated that the cranberry industry generates about $300 million in business in the state and employs 7,000 people. In April of this year, Gov. Jim Doyle and the state Legislature named the cranberry the state fruit.

Around 250 cranberry growers can be found in 20 counties in Wisconsin. Some marshes have been in operations for more than 100 years. Farmers have been growing cranberries in the state since the mid-1800s. That makes for a long tradition for growers like Rutlin.

“It’s a lot of work, but also a lot of fun,” said Rutlin, who took over the main responsibility for the running of the marshes, which his father first planted in the mid-1960s.

“I was raised in the business, but when you’re a kid you don’t understand the pressures that come with running the business part of it. I still enjoy it though and would like to see my kids go into it.”

On the day of the interview, Rutlin’s crew was harvesting the cranberries from the flooded bogs. They were using a shaker and blower customized by Kurt himself, a boon very similar to those used in oil spills and some good old-fashioned hand labor.

“Men used to use boards to push the cranberries to where they could be picked up,” Rutlin said. “We’ve moved beyond that now, but it still takes some manual labor.”

Rutlin’s crew was working on an upland marsh, to which water has been pumped from a nearby river. The family bogs also include some conventional wetland marshes.

Monroe County and other cranberry counties have some things in common. They have ample supplies of water, and overall soil and water that are more acidic than alkaline.

“Cranberries grow best in acidic conditions,” Rutlin said. “A lot of cranberries have been grown in peat. We have been switching over to sand over the years.”

Because water is so critical to cranberry growers, there have been clashes with others over rights and environmental concerns. Rutlin says he shares those concerns.

“If I get contaminated water from upstream, my crop gets contaminated,” he said. “Maintaining water quality is very important.”

At this time of the year, the water is used as a vehicle for bringing the berries to the surface for harvesting. Earlier in the year, it is used to help grow the vines that produce the cranberries.

Cranberries are a perennial crop, but must be carefully cultivated each year. Cranes, geese and deer like to make them parts of their diets. They also are susceptible to changing weather conditions and early and late freezes.

Pricing and Marketing

Rutlin said 2003 produced a bumper crop of cranberries and a price of lower to mid-$30 range per barrel. During a good year, the Rutlins can get up to 420 barrels of cranberries per acre, well above the state average of 180. The cool summer has suppressed the crop a bit this year, he said, but the price should rise to the upper-$30 range.

At one time, growers were getting as much as $88 a barrel, Rutlin said. That led many investors to get into cranberry production, and an over-supply of marshes and fruit developed. That brought down the price considerably and created some tough times for many cranberry growers.

Rutlin said his family operation survived because they watched their costs and had some good local bankers who worked with the company. For example, Rutlin likes to customize his own equipment and has saved considerable costs by doing so.

His wife, Jill, handles much of the books and other business details. His father, Kenny, who founded the company, also remains involved. In fact, he was harvesting in the marshes on the day of the interview with WisBiz In-Depth.

Rutlin also got into fish farming during the tougher times for cranberries. He remains in it with some ponds on his land and raises perch fingerlings, which are sold to operators of tank fisheries

During the leaner times, the Rutlins also just refused to give up. “We talked about selling the marshes and getting out of the business, but concluded we just wanted to remain in it,” he said. This year, Rutlin expects to turn a profit.

For years, Rutlin’s cranberries went primarily to Ocean Spray, which is a nationwide cooperative. In recent years, Rutlin has joined a state co-op that sells the fruit to the highest bidder. “It’s worked out pretty well,” he said.

Rutlin doesn’t think the recent sale of some Northland properties to Ocean Spray will have a negative effect on cranberry growers. He praised both companies for coming up with new markets for cranberries.

For example, more cranberries are sold for the making of juice than a couple decades ago. Cranberries are combined with other fruits, and most recently tea, in a variety of beverages.

Craisins have been another product developed over the last decade or so. They are made from dried berries.

The cranberry industry also has capitalized on research that shows some health benefits from the fruit. That research has indicated consumption of cranberries can help combat urinary infections and gum disease. Cranberries also are rich in anti-oxidants and flavonoids that can have benefits in the fight against heart disease and cancer.

In upcoming In-Depth columns, the overall cranberry industry will be explored further, and environmental challenges for growers and processors will be looked at.

But, all involved in the industry will say that the success of the cranberry industry in Wisconsin comes down to the individual growers like the Rutlin family and their willingness to work the marshes that have produced the fruit for decades.

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