WisBusiness: Cranberry co-op station adds to good harvest for Wisconsin

By Gregg Hoffmann

For WisBusiness.com

Cranberry producers are wrapping up their harvest season and all indications are that Wisconsin will top the country in cranberry production for the 15th straight year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service has estimated that Wisconsin will yield 4.0 million barrels of cranberries. That would be below last year’s record harvest, but will still put the state at the top of the list.

“Wisconsin growers are pleased with the outlook for this year’s harvest,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of WSCGA. “This is good news for a leading Wisconsin industry that continues to grow.”

A collection of producers, the Wisconsin Cranberry Cooperative, contributed to this year’s harvest, and had a new, state-of-the-art receiving station to work through near Warrens.

The Copper Road Receiving Station, owned by Kurt and Jill Rutlin, processed several thousand pounds of cranberries in its first year of operation.

“Overall, it was a nice crop,” Kurt Rutlin said during a recent tour of the facility. “We started here with some early varieties and were busy throughout the harvest season.”

Cranberries processed through the station via the co-op are marketed directly to customers around the world. “A lot of the berries through here went to bakeries that add cranberries to their baked goods,” said Rutlin. “We also sold to places that make dried fruit foods out of the berries and to pharmaceutical firms that make vitamin tablets.”

Some of the markets for the berries are as far away as Japan. Ocean Spray and other large cranberry producers buy berries from the co-op and also processed some of their berries at the Copper Road station. But, Rutlin emphasized that the co-op also markets to smaller, niche markets that some of the big producers are not that interested in.

“Ocean Spray and other big companies deal with very large volumes of fruit,” Rutlin said. “We also deal with smaller volumes and some smaller markets, through our own brokers.”

The new station allows the segregation of berries by individual producers when the fruit first comes to the loading area. The berries are then kept in a batch during the washing, drying and packaging processes.

“If a customer has a question about the berries they receive we can check back to the specific truckload, even to the marsh, where those berries came from,” said Rutlin, adding that quality control is very important to the station and the co-op.

Rutlin said similar stations were located to the east of Black River Falls and near Tomah.

Wisconsin cranberry producers provide nearly 60 percent of the nation’s supply of cranberries. They comprise the state’s largest fruit industry, contributing $350 million annually to the state’s economy and supporting, 7,200 jobs, according to the WSCA.

In recent years, the industry has lobbied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other state and federal agencies to allow more marshes to be opened for growing of cranberries. The review process for such expansion is at various stages of approval, depending on the agency.

Industry spokesmen cite a growing market in Europe and Asia, where the fruit is not readily grown. In September, 18 representatives from 12 countries toured Wisconsin marshes at the start of the harvest season to learn more about the industry.

The tour was timed right after reports from the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee that exports increased by more than 18 percent in the last year. About 45 million pounds of berries were exported last year, and more than half of that supply came from Wisconsin.

Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington — as well as Canada and Chile — grow and export cranberries. Germany, France, Australia and Mexico are big markets for berries.

Rutlin said the industry’s marketing of research on health benefits of cranberries has been one reason worldwide interest has grown. “We sell to markets that made a powder of the berries and then make vitamin supplements in tablet and powder form,” he said.

The exact count of the 2009 harvest should be available in the next few weeks.