PITTSVILLE, WI (OnFocus) – Wisconsin produces nearly 60% of the cranberries grown in the United States, and approximately 60% of those cranberries come from Wood County.
Family-owned companies Gardner Cranberry, Badger State Fruit Processing, and Gardner Cold Storage are located in the Pittsville area and grow, harvest, process, and store millions of pounds of cranberries every year. They are the largest independent supplier of cranberry products in the United States, harvesting and processing more than 1,200 acres of bog.
“The growing conditions here were good for cranberries, as were the water resources,” said Tom Gardner of the industry’s origins in Pittsville.
“The industry has a huge impact here. It provides jobs in the region for the people working on the cranberry marshes in the growing season and it has impact during the harvest season,” he said, adding that there are a lot of logistic involved with hauling, cleaning, binning, and storing cranberries.
“Almost 50% of the state’s crop is stored in the Pittsville area,” he said, adding that Gardner’s also stores cranberries for other growers. “We are centrally located so it works well.”
Food is processed year-round at processing facilities, but the highlight of cranberry season is harvest time in late September/early October. Pittsville High School is home to one of the nation’s only cranberry science classes and each year, students from that class and Pittsville FFA host the “Splash of Red Cranberry Tours” to showcase the industry.
“It’s an amazing experience for the students to learn about the industry and be one of the guides,” said Gardner.
Pittsville School District Superintendent Rodney Figueroa said the cranberry program does more than just teach the kids about cranberries.
“Our kids have to develop the program, they have to do the presentation, the tours, and guide other people,” Figueroa said. “Everything that they do is student-driven. It is an amazing program and it forces kids to be leaders and they have to interact with adults from all over the country not just from their area.”
The tour begins at a growing area, then a harvest area, receiving station, and cleaning/binning/freezing area.
“Cranberries all have to be frozen before they are processed, as this enhances the process,” explained Gardner. “After the tour, everyone is provided a meal with cranberries in it made by local catering companies here in town.”
The tours also help clear up common misconceptions about cranberry growing.
“Cranberries are not grown in water – that’s a misnomer,” explained Gardner. “Cranberries are grown in moist sand. The water level is brought up to cover plants only during harvest and in the fall. Typically, cranberries are only under water 7-10 days for harvesting and for protection in the cold. If they stay underwater too long, it damages the plant.”
Badger State Fruit Processing currently has an annual production of more than 2 million gallons of cranberry juice concentrate and 5 million gallons of single strength juice. Gardner added Premium Dried Cranberries to their product portfolio in 2013.
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