You might not guess it from the stacks and stacks of cranberries in our stores this time of year, but the local organic cranberries you’ll find at Willy Street Co-op are grown in the smallest organic cranberry bog in the world. It also happens to be the first bog in the state to be certified organic, and the first bog to be located in an upland area—dry-harvested instead of flooded at harvest time.
Reusch Century Farm is located two hours north of Madison, just outside Wisconsin Rapids. On the crisp September morning I drove up to to visit Brian Ruesch, the cranberries were already turning red and just a few weeks away from harvest. Brian had the sprinklers on when I arrived, and I spotted a few frogs out enjoying their morning shower. I was struck (as I have been many times before) by how beautiful an organic growing system like this is—providing habitat for frogs and other beneficial critters rather than seeking to eliminate them.
Brian grows four acres of certified organic cranberries on land his family has been farming for over a century. For many years, the farm was a small dairy, and then in the early 1990s, Brian’s dad started experimenting with organic cranberries and tried growing them in his upland environment. According to Brian, his father was the first person to attempt cranberries in this kind of terrain. Why? “Because if someone told my dad he couldn’t do something, he just had to do it!”
Willy Street Co-op was one of the Ruesch’s first customers; we started purchasing their organic cranberries in the late ’90s and have remained committed partners ever since.
Why do we love Ruesch Century Farm cranberries so much?
We have a strong commitment to supporting small local farms generally, but for this farm in particular, it’s all about the quality. Brian dry-harvests his cranberries, so instead of flooding his bog at harvest time, he walks his fields with a hand-held harvester that resembles a large vacuum cleaner. The berries are then sorted in an antique cranberry sorter that Brian picked up on a recent trip to Cape Cod, and packed into pint containers. Because the berries are never waterlogged, they have a longer shelf life and retain their beautiful red shiny exterior much longer than other cranberries.
Small organic agriculture
As Brian talked to me about his hopes and fears for the future of his farm, I was struck by what a perfect illustration this farm is of the broader state of small organic agriculture. Brian explained that he expects about 50 barrels of cranberries per acre from his small organic bog, while the large growers around him yield up to 600 barrels per acre thanks to intensive growing methods, chemical inputs, and state-of-the-art hybrid cranberry varieties. On top of that, very large Canadian organic growers are shipping more and more berries into the U.S. market. All of this depresses the price of cranberries, making it very hard for small, high-quality growers like him to survive. This is not a unique story—this is the challenge faced by small growers everywhere.
Growers we trust
Lucky for Brian (and for us!), our relationship with Reusch Century Farm is deeper than the current market price for cranberries. We will continue to source berries from Brian because we are committed to supporting small-scale, sustainable agriculture, and to sustaining long-term relationships with growers we trust. By purchasing products like these cranberries, you become part of that commitment as you help ensure that the Ruesch Century Farm, and farms like it, will be in business for 100 years into the future.