Farm Story: Minnesota Cranberry Co.

Cranberries have been a part of Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember, and every year around this time I can't help but think of them and of that heated debate at Grandma Betty's table about canned vs. fresh. Admittedly as a kid I preferred canned, but now as a (somewhat) adult, I've grown to know that there's only one real option, fresh! 

We had the opportunity recently to tag along with the crew at Lakes & Legends brewery on a trip to the only operating cranberry farm in all of MN. Lakes & Legends has made sourcing local ingredients a priority in their brews, and these MN cranberries will star in their Cranberry Saison this holiday season (available exclusively in their new Loring Park taproom). The Forster family in Aitkin, MN– Randy, Billie, Amanda, Samantha, Shannon and Nathan, welcomed us and the Lakes & Legends crew one beautiful weekend as we arrived just before the sunset. We found fields of floating cranberries waiting to be harvested as far as the eye could see, it was a beautiful sight indeed. The Minnesota Cranberry Co. doesn't just harvest cranberries, they also produce delicious wild rice which we were lucky enough to sample for lunch the next day. 

We weren't the only ones who showed up for the harvest that beautiful weekend. Friends, neighbors and even the local school principle came to watch the harvest unfold. It was certainly a family affair and we couldn't have been happier to be a part of it. 

Minnesota Cranberry Co.
50 Maryhill Ln
Aitkin, Minnesota

The Forster Family of the Minnesota Cranberry Co.

The Forster Family of the Minnesota Cranberry Co.

Occupation & Growing Focus:
Randy owns Minnesota Cranberry Co. and Randy Forster Construction. Billie Forster helps in the farm and is the owner of Aitkin Quilts and Fabrics and Specialty Embroidery.

Choice of unwinding beverage after a full day in the field?
We both like good wine and flavored beer.

Randy Forster showing us the cranberry vines before the fields are flooded

Randy Forster showing us the cranberry vines before the fields are flooded

The berries grow on low perennial vines in sunken bogs which can grow well over 30 years continuously. They also take 16 months to grow, meaning farmers need to nurture two seasons of crops at one time–the berries ready to be harvested and the buds ready to grow for next year. For more detail on the growing process, check out this video. 

The berries grow on low perennial vines in sunken bogs which can grow well over 30 years continuously. They also take 16 months to grow, meaning farmers need to nurture two seasons of crops at one time–the berries ready to be harvested and the buds ready to grow for next year. For more detail on the growing process, check out this video


How did you become involved with this work and why do you do it?
Randy has always farmed but started cranberry farming when we were lucky enough to purchase a farm with this delectable berry on it. We do it because it is our livelihood and makes us smile. The risk, challenge and rewards are somewhat of a high.

What is the scale of this operation?
1,800 acres rice consumes about 500 acres, beans 200 oats 100 and cranberries 44 and the rest grows beautiful children, memories and happiness.

What's one thing you think people would be surprised to know about cranberry production? 
That cranberry’s are only 1 of 3 native berries to the United States.

The four air chambers inside are what makes it float!

The four air chambers inside are what makes it float!

This bud will turn into a cranberry next year

This bud will turn into a cranberry next year

There vast surrounding wetlands help provide water to flood and irrigate the cranberry & wild rice crops, year round in addition to providing habitat for swans, geese, bears, wolves, etc.  

Anatomy of the Cranberry plant. Illustration by Rachel Rolseth. 

Anatomy of the Cranberry plant. Illustration by Rachel Rolseth

Cranberries are a food, medicine and dye. They are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and outrank many fruits and vegetables for disease fighting antioxidants. Though the a major portion of cranberries are consumed on Thanksgiving day, cranberry juice, craisins and other cranberry products can commonly be found throughout the year. 

On the day we visited, the Forster family was harvesting more than 30,000 pounds of cranberries from just a one of two floating fields, each about four acres.  Most of this cranberry harvest will be frozen and sent to a major juice maker, but plenty will still go to surrounding local markets, friends and families, not to mention Lakes and Legends where it will be turned into a specialty cranberry brew. 

What's the best part of being a cranberry & wild rice farmer? 
We definitely like growing food and the versatility that farming offers.

What's the worst or most challenging part? 
The weather, the soft markets and the long days.

This harvester machine is used to knock the berries off the vines. Amanda told me that only her dad is allowed to use this because if you damage the vines, there could be major repercussions for the next years harvest. 

What are you most proud of this year?
The effort our children have put forth on our farm and the strides we have made in the cranberry fields.

What is it like to be a family owned & operated farm on this scale?
You definitely get a sense of teamwork. With the family always together and their strengths, there are always lots of ideas.

Everyone puts on waders as they climb into the corralled berries which are sucked into a large vacuum looking thing and up a tube where they the berries and the water are separated

Everyone puts on waders as they climb into the corralled berries which are sucked into a large vacuum looking thing and up a tube where they the berries and the water are separated

  

Are your children interested in pursuing a career in farming?
Amanda says she is interested in the family farm but not as manager. She is very, very active in FFA (Future Farmers of America). Shannon and Samantha say it will always play a part in their lives because it is part of them. Nathan says he wouldn't have it any other way.

Randy & Billie Jo

Randy & Billie Jo

There's always a little time for fun

There's always a little time for fun

What are your sources of strength & nourishment? 
I would say my strength and what keeps me interested in farming is my husband and his will to make it always work. Randy thrives on knowing what he is building.

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This is where the water and debris is collected and then recycled back to the land 

This is where the water and debris is collected and then recycled back to the land 

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The berries are sprayed as they float off to the semi truck 

The berries are sprayed as they float off to the semi truck 

And taste tested for quality 

And taste tested for quality 

Here they are being loaded into the back of a semi, they estimated the harvest would be around 30,000lbs the day we visited

Here they are being loaded into the back of a semi, they estimated the harvest would be around 30,000lbs the day we visited

Do you come from a farming background?
We both have some farming background but not at this scale.


What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer?
It takes a person that doesn't have to live by structure.  Everything changes all the time.