Behind the scenes at one of the Midwest's biggest organic cranberry farms

Phil Cardamone

Phil Cardamone

As soon as cranberries appear in my co-op each October, I launch into full holiday mode.

Though I grew up near New Jersey’s cranberry bogs, I didn’t witness the harvest until I moved to the Midwest. It’s breathtaking: Crimson ponds pulse under the bluest autumn skies, and sandhill cranes arch their graceful necks on shore. (The name “cranberry” was inspired by those birds; they were once called “craneberries.”)

Our eastern neighbor, Wisconsin, grows more than 60 percent of the world’s fresh cranberries. Iconic, intense, and bittersweet, the bright red pods are the final fruit of the season, earth’s bonny farewell until spring.

“All of us cranberry growers are, in our hearts, conservationists,” says John Stauner of James Lake Farms. Located near the small town of Three Lakes, Wisconsin, James Lake is one of the largest organic cranberry growers in the country, encompassing 190 acres of productive cranberry marsh surrounded by 1,540 acres of support land. And Stauner really is a conservationist, more so than others. With nearly 30 years in the business and degrees in natural resources and water chemistry, he’s deeply committed to sustainable practices.

“There’s a science and an art to cranberry growing,” he says. First, the science: Cultivating these cheery red orbs is a tough, risky business. The season is short, and the marshy environment supports all manner of lethal bugs—black-headed fireworms, fruit worms—as well as noxious weeds, ruinous plant diseases, and fungus. Conventional growers manage them with chemicals, but many of those are known carcinogens and hormone disruptors that are then discharged into our waterways and cycled into our drinking water.

Not Stauner. He understands the danger of these practices, how they quiet the singing birds, the croaking frogs, the buzzing and whirring insects. “A marsh that has been sprayed is eerily silent; I want diversity on this land,” he says. “The wildlife is inspiring. Toads, frogs, tadpoles, freshwater sponges, ducks, geese, and nesting loons—the place is alive.” Besides, there are three different species of native bumblebees and pollinators to think about: “We have a natural pollinator base that we’re careful to protect; we do not use the harsh chemicals that combat them.”

Second is the art. James Lake grows five different varieties of cranberries that ripen throughout the season. “We know our land; it’s a beautiful, complex ecosystem,” Stauner says. “The work is to keep it in balance.” This means caring for the vines, spending time to hand weed instead of using chemicals, and planting different varieties that ripen in sequence, so all of the fields aren’t flooded at once, disrupting the water tables. “It’s certainly more challenging to farm this way, but that’s why I like it best,” Stauner says. “It’s a gift to hear the loons in the morning and to see the sandhill cranes fly in. That makes the extra effort worthwhile.”

Stauner meets the challenges that flummox conventional chemical famers by combining state-of-the-art technology with his heritage wisdom. At James Lake, a mechanical clipper helps control weeds; the farm uses mating disruption techniques to discourage pests from reproducing by piping sounds and vibrations into the bogs; and in the spring, the marshes are flooded to drown insects as they hatch.

Because cranberries contain pockets of air, they float when the fields are flooded so they can be more easily raked off of their vines. They’re then scooped into trucks and taken to the packing shed. Their tough skin protects them from absorbing too much water, and because of the air pocket, they’re like little balls that bounce when they roll off the table and hit the floor. They were once nicknamed “bounce berries.”

James Lake is truly a family business, and the values of sustainability don’t end at the farm. John works alongside his wife Nora’s son, Ben Riker, a National Guard veteran who served eight years in the Wisconsin National Guard and was twice deployed to the Middle East. Ben manages the operation and now lives on the land with his own wife and two children. He’s an advocate for veterans and a leader in the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which provides tools to help vets transition from military service to careers in agriculture.

“Veterans possess the unique skills and character needed to strengthen rural communities and create sustainable food systems for us all,” he says.

As the region’s largest organic grower, Stauner helps conventional chemical farmers adapt alternative sustainable methods to protect their land. He was recently recognized for his service and innovation with the industry’s Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers (WSCG) President’s Award.

“We now have three grandchildren growing up on the property learning about cranberries, and to me, that’s most rewarding,” Stauner says. “We love to grow cranberries, and having the family here, sharing this lifestyle and our values, is its own reward.”

Easy Cranberry Recipes

Both of these recipes make fabulous condiments for turkey, wild game, and chicken. Swirl them into mayonnaise for sandwiches or to toss into a salad. Or simply serve alongside cheeses.

Fresh Cranberry Relish

Makes about 2 to 2 1/2 cups

3 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted

2 tablespoons fresh orange zest

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup chopped crystalized ginger, optional

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar or honey to taste

Put all of the ingredients into a food processor fitted with a steel blade, and chop until fine. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

Cranberry Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

3 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted

1/2 cup apple cider

1/4 to 1/2 cup honey, maple syrup, or sugar, to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the cranberries and cider to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the berries have popped open, about three to five minutes. Stir in the honey or maple syrup or sugar to taste.

Don’t sweeten this sauce until after the berries have opened, as it will make them tough. After cooling, store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a month.