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.

Field Trip: Mighty Axe Hops

Eric Sannerud CEO and Farmer of Mighty Axe. 

Eric Sannerud CEO and Farmer of Mighty Axe. 

Mighty Axe Hops
16501 Buchanan St. NE
Ham Lake, MN 55304

Across the country chefs and consumers alike are pushing the demand for local supply chains to go beyond just your typical market produce. In Minnesota our exploding craft beer movement is reflecting this trend with many local brewers' growing commitment to sourcing local, sustainably raised ingredients in their brews. We've been anxious to get out and tour Mighty Axe Hops farm since we first noticed the stunning towering rows of Tamarack beams last summer during our tour of  Born and Dyed in Minnesota. The owner of Mighty Axe might also be a glimpse of what our next generation of farmers will look like. Savvy, college educated entrepreneurs dedicated to healing the earth and expanding our definitions of what it means to be farm to table. This generation won't be leaving something behind to clean up, they are cultivating something that will nourish generations to come. 

How did you become involved with this work and why do you do it?

We came to hops through a shared love of beer. We attended a conference where we met a small scale hops grower and off we went! Farming though for me is something much deeper. I grew up in the suburbs , Pizza Hut was my favorite food, and then, like the old saying, you can take the person off the farm buy you cant take the farm out of the person...I was called back to my roots.

 

Tell us about the land you are farming and/or about your operating facilities. (i.e. land origins, history of the site, site selection and location, etc.)

I’m the fourth generation to call this land home here in Ham Lake, MN. We started out here and will continue to grow here. Personally, hops production is my way of keeping the family farm in the family.

 

How many people volunteer or work here?

Ben, Brian and I are the founding team members. This summer we’ve welcomed three interns into the yard - Mitch, Michelle, and Nick - each with funding from the University of Minnesota.

Write here...

Write here...

Describe your growing technique:

We grow our hops using sustainable methods, though we are not organic. Hops are a hungry plant that needs plenty of fertilizer to reach full yield. A hop yard is basically a perennial buffet for diseases and pests. On the disease front we spray to treat downy mildew. For insects we employ IPM methods. For weed control we are testing various perennial and annual living and dead mulches to compete with weeds. We are Minnesota’s first Ag Water Quality Certified hops farm, which is cool. It is a certification from the MN Department of Agriculture that our practices are above the standard for protecting water quality!

How do you source supplies:

Our poles come from foresters up north, our plants from a greenhouse in Michigan. We order most of our hardware through the internet. The internet has been a great source for much of our hardware, allowing us to buy at wholesale prices instead of retail.

Hops are the female only flowers of the hops plant.

Hops are the female only flowers of the hops plant.

"We aren't really hops farmers, we are more like Lupulin Farmers".   Lupulin is the active ingredient in hops that is extracted to give beer that unique bitter aroma and flavor. 

"We aren't really hops farmers, we are more like Lupulin Farmers".  
Lupulin is the active ingredient in hops that is extracted to give beer that unique bitter aroma and flavor. 

What are you most proud of this season/year? (i.e. new techniques, markets, niche products; beautiful produce, livestock, fish; business additions/growth, etc.)

We’ve more than quadrupled our acreage, fought off a disease, and survived a hail storm. Come harvest we’ll know how successful we’ve been at keeping the plants happy and healthy. Time will tell, but proud of our team no matter what the yield.

 

How can people support what you’re doing? (i.e. where can people buy your products and/or services, do you offer classes, do you have volunteer opportunities, etc.)

The biggest thing folks who like craft beer can do is to go to the local brewer and ask for local hops or even attend one our tapping parties! In addition to special tap room release parties, we host events on the farm, like August 29th’s Mighty Pick. (More info at: www.MightyPick2015.eventbrite.com) Information on all our events can be found at www.MightyAxeHops.com or at facebook.com/MightyAxeHops

The three little pigs of Berkshire and Duroc breeds. 

The three little pigs of Berkshire and Duroc breeds. 

What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer/local foods producer?
A significant amount of entrepreneurial drive coupled with a persistent humility. Entrepreneurial ability and humility are traits not often found in one individual. The best farmers I’ve met know that no matter how many years they’ve been farming, there is always more to learn.  

Custom built wagon for tending to the 16 foot tall vines. Aka the norwegian Død Vogn.

Custom built wagon for tending to the 16 foot tall vines. Aka the norwegian Død Vogn.

What are the biggest challenges you’ll face or are currently facing this season/year?

We’ll always be fighting against weeds, pests and disease, while hoping for kind weather. Otherwise our biggest challenge right now is fundraising to grow our operation.

First year plantings. 

First year plantings. 

Hop twine or Coir Yarn, a waste product from coconut husk.

Hop twine or Coir Yarn, a waste product from coconut husk.

How would you describe our local farm to brewery system in Minnesota? Where is there room for movement?

Our local farm to brewery system is in it’s very earliest stages. There are relatively few local hops growers, very few local malt grain growers and a distinct lack of the processing and marketing organizations to help grow either industry. For hops, we’re working with several interested folks to sort out a hops hub.

What are the greatest strengths of our local brewery supply growers?

Local hops allows Minnesota craft and homebrewers add resilience to their supply chains, diversifying their sources in the face of steadily increasing demand driven by the growth of craft beer and a changing climate. Local hops also carry a unique terroir, setting them apart from hops grown any where else in the world, and lending a distinctive “Minnesotan” quality to the beer.

What breweries do you supply/where can your hops be found?

We are happy to count Fulton Brewing, Fair State Brewing Cooperative, Bad Weather Brewing, Burning Brothers Brewing, Bent Brewstillery, Excelsior Brewing, Herkimer Pub, and Day Block Brewing as our customers.

Mighty Ax recently became one of the first participants in the  Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program , a reflection of their commitment  to good land stewardship of their farm for generations to come.

Mighty Ax recently became one of the first participants in the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, a reflection of their commitment  to good land stewardship of their farm for generations to come.

What’s next for Mighty Axe?

More hops! Lots more hops.

What is it like being a young farming entrepreneur?

(For one, isn’t it interesting that being a “young farmer” doesn’t automatically imply also being an entrepreneur?) It is unlike anything else. My entire present and future is committed to this one tiny place on the surface of our Earth.

The risks are immense, there are many sleepless nights. Yet, I live a gift every single day.

Producer Story: Sociable Cider Werks

Sociable Cider Werks proprietors - Wade Thompson and  Jim Watkins

Sociable Cider Werks proprietors - Wade Thompson and Jim Watkins

Sociable Cider Werks
1500 Fillmore St. NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413

 

We recently sat down with Jim Watkins, co-owner of Sociable Cider Werks, upon the businesses' one year anniversary to discuss small batch ciders, the challenges of year-round local produce sourcing in Minnesota, environmentally-friendly business practices and why juice concentrate diminishes the quality of a great hard cider. Over the last year, Sociable has become one of the major players in the seemingly ever-expanding NE Minneapolis brewing district. 

Sociable makes three flagship ciders that are available year-round (Freewheeler, Hop-a-Wheelie and Spoke Wrench), as well as one-off infusions and barrel aged creations. Their delicious products can be found throughout the Twin Cities at local watering holes and restaurants, as well as on draft in their own taproom. Look for Sociable Cider in cans at Twin City liquor stores in 2015!

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What is the main goal of your operation?

We make great small batch ciders for the local craft beer community. We believe that hard ciders should be more than lightly alcoholic, made-from concentrate, sticky sweet apple juice boxes that currently dominate the market. We adamantly believe that fresh tasting ciders come from fresh-pressed apples, not concentrates.

 

Tell us about your operation - how long has it been in existence and on what kind of scale? Has the business changed scale since its initial inception?

We just celebrated our one-year anniversary over Thanksgiving week! It's been an absolute whirlwind of a year. We went from a two person operation to a ten person operation in the blink of an eye. We started with just our taproom, then added bar and restaurant draft accounts, and are on the cusp of firing up our brand new canning machine, which means Sociable Cider is weeks away from being available on liquor store shelves!  

 

How did you become involved with this work and why do you do it?

The business started in a garage, and we continue to do it because we love it!

I was born in Burnsville and Wade is from Rushford, MN. Wade grew up on a family farm growing corn and soybeans. I grew up on a horse farm where we leased to people who wanted to board their horses there. 

Wade and I met at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. After college, we were roommates and moved out to New York City and both worked for investment banks. I worked for Citibank and Wade worked for Piper Jaffray. We both hated it and wanted to move back home. We decided we were both pretty over wearing ties. We talked a lot about starting our own business and had no idea what we wanted it to be. Once we found ourselves back in Minneapolis we started home brewing.  We picked up cider from Wade’s father-in law who had been making it for twenty plus years with pressed apples. So we started making our own, tweaking it and developing it.

 

Was Wade’s father-in-law pretty integral to the first few home brews?

Yeah, he gave us a lot of tips and provided us with a ton of great old literature, cider-making books and ample feedback. After the initial batches, Wade and I started experimenting with adding in bittering components, including sorghum and hops.

 

Were the addition of hops to your products primarily because of the bitterness aspect that you wanted to achieve?

Yeah. Great ciders have three major flavor components – sweet, tart and bitter. The key to a really well balanced cider is obtaining that bitterness. There’s no real commercial infrastructure for bitter apples that are used in brewing in the U.S. During Prohibition there was no reason for U.S. growers to continue growing bitter apples, so they began disappearing since they aren’t good for anything except producing cider. In the industry they’re called spitters because you want to spit them out as soon as you take a bite since they’re so bitter. We’re working with Pepin Heights Orchard to develop a 40-acre plot of bitter apples that we’ll be able to blend into all of our batches. But, for the most part we’re trying to figure out how to achieve that bitterness in our products without shipping bitter apples in from the East or West coasts. For us, we really liked the idea of continuing to source locally and developing partnerships with growers who can grow bitter apples in Minnesota. 

In the homebrewing community apple graffs are really popular, where you blend apples and beer wort and ferment them together. We started home brewing graffs and had a lot of fun doing it. It really allows for a lot of flexibility.

Hard at work brewing cider.

Hard at work brewing cider.

Tell us about your operations and business model.

Cider lives in a world between beer and wine. Our process has a lot in common with wine making, but the way people drink ciders has a lot in common with beer making. As a result, craft cider gets a full gamut of producers that fall all along that wine/beer continuum. While (or maybe because) both Wade and I grew up on farms, we built our business around a model that more closely focuses on brewing rather than growing. That said, we source our ingredients from the best growers/farmers/packers/malters in the area including our apple partners, Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, MN and our malt partners the Brewers Supply Group in Kasota, MN.

 

What type of brewing is this and what do you focus on?

We forsake using apple juice concentrate as a base for our products and instead use only fresh pressed apples to make quality dry ciders for the local craft beer crowd. If you like Angry Orchard, Crispin, Smith and Forge or Zima then chances are, our style of cider may not blow your hair back. On the flip side, if you enjoy drinking a wide range of craft beers and love that sour beers and lambics are just hitting the scene in Minneapolis, then we are the guys for you! 

Ciders made from concentrate are not particularly artful. Traditionally, high-end cider makers have been apple growers first. Cider brewing is much more like a wine making process - the flavor is largely dependent on when you pick the fruit, which is going to impact the acidity, and how you age it. The whole process is very similar to wine making just with a focus on the tree and its fruit as opposed to the vine.

The flip side is that we treat the process more like a craft brewing process. You’ll be hard pressed (no pun intended) to find craft brewers who also grow their own grain because it’s difficult to be a brewer and a grain farmer. So in terms of our process, the focus is on using apples that are grown by experts to make the best possible craft made product. We source all Midwestern apples.

 

Are you able to source apples for your products from the Midwest year-round?

It’s tough to do that, so we run a very seasonal business – inventory build followed by inventory burn is our style. We experimented with putting some apples in cold storage last year with middle of the road success, so we’re still working on ironing that out. The big thing is that we’re lacking the necessary infrastructure in the Midwest to pack apples year round.

Out West, the infrastructure is excellent. You can get a fresh Washington apple twelve months out of the year. The reason for that is because there’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure in place for picking and storing apples there the same way that Idaho has infrastructure for potatoes. That infrastructure doesn’t really exist here because the Minnesota apple consumer doesn’t demand local apples twelve months out of the year, so as a result you can only get them for three to four months during the harvest season. 

The taproom on a sunny morning.

The taproom on a sunny morning.

Do you think the lack of infrastructure for year round apple growing and storage in Minnesota has more to do with supply and demand or the colder weather here?  

I think it’s all driven by demand. I think that if people demanded Minnesota produce year round, then we’d be able to source Minnesota-grown apples for our products year-round. It also has a lot to do with the weather, but there are places that have equally unfavorable winter weather that still have farmers markets operating year round. A majority of Minnesota’s farmers markets don’t operate year round even though the technology for fruit storage exists. And, because Minnesota has never been a major producer of fruit, we’ve always relied on shipping it in from the West Coast. 

The more sustainable thing to do would be to build the fruit storage infrastructure here so that we can support farmers and a harvest that will carry us through the seasons. Michigan has this infrastructure in place a little bit and Washington State certainly has it as well. Around 80 percent of the United States’ apple production occurs within three counties in Washington State. The cost impact and environmental impact of shipping apples from across the country doesn’t make sense, but for a long time it has been a lot easier because of the infrastructure. We have a great apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota where they do a lot of cross-pollination to come up with new sweet, tart, marketable apples and then those get rolled out to the small farmers around the state. But, we still don’t have the infrastructure in place to become a large apple producing state. 

  

How did you hook up with your local apple producer, Pepin Heights? 

We found out about Pepin Heights after having conversations with some people from the University of Minnesota. Pepin funds a lot of the University’s apple breeding research.

 

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Utilizing our equipment all year when access to locally grown apples has such a tight picking and pressing window.  

 

What have you been the most proud of during your initial year?

Our bourbon barrel aged Freewheeler. We are in the process of scaling up our barrel aging program. This was our first shot at it, and boy did it turn out well!  

Bourbon barrel-aged Freewheeler.

Bourbon barrel-aged Freewheeler.

Your tag line is “Decidedly different, delightfully sociable”. How is Sociable Cider Werks decidedly different?   

There’s literally nobody in the country that does what we do. Our products don’t focus on residual sugars; instead we focus on robust flavor profiles. Cider companies that use juice concentrate tend to produce products containing very little nuanced flavors.  

 

Do you consider your business to be environmentally conscious?

One of the real decisions we had to make was whether or not to press our own apples, but we also wanted to be near people. The environmental impact of shipping apples cross-country is huge, which is why we stick to sourcing them locally. One of the reasons we work with Pepin Heights is because they do our apple pressing so we don’t have the cost and environmental impact of shipping the added weight of full apples. The spent apple pulp left over from pressing goes to feeding Lake City livestock.

We’re also planning on packaging our products in cans because urban recycling centers are driven by aluminum costs. It costs more for them to pick up cardboard and glass than they make back, whereas aluminum values are high enough that recycling them actually generates revenues for urban recycling programs.

We’ve gotten some flack for not offering customers glass growlers, which I think are highly disposable. Usually, people get three to four fills out of them before they break or are discarded. Instead, we offer stainless steel, reusable growlers. They’re a little bit more expensive up front, but they look great and are infinitely reusable. They can also be used as water bottles (when you’re not using them for cider!).

We’re also in the process of switching over from having rotating food trucks outside the brewery to only using one resident food truck (The Curious Goat) that sources all of its food products locally and provides customers with only compostable consumables (i.e. plates, napkins, utensils, etc.). In the brewery, upwards of 95% of all the waste we generate is compostable. This past summer at our block party we also partnered with Eureka Recycling to host a zero waste event. 

Finally, we’ve been kicking around the idea of switching our glycol chilling system to an open-air reservoir system that would pump glycol outside in the winter to rooftop reservoirs to be naturally cooled as opposed to using energy to run a compressor. We’ve also talked about putting solar panels on the roof, but we don’t own the building, so we’re a little hesitant to put money into that. 

Cider flight stare down. Front and center is Freewheeler, Sociable's signature cider that tastes like an apple Champagne.

Cider flight stare down. Front and center is Freewheeler, Sociable's signature cider that tastes like an apple Champagne.

Head Brewer Mike Willaford.

Head Brewer Mike Willaford.

What qualities do you think it takes to be a brewer focused on local sourcing and production?

An unwavering commitment to quality. The juice concentrate option is so cheap, and easy from a sourcing perspective; I can see how so many people are tempted by it. We have to be pretty hard headed to stay true to the real thing even when sourcing our fruit comes with so many more challenges.

 

How can people support what you’re doing?

Come to the taproom to enjoy our wares, and of course ask for them when you are out and about! We have a waiting list for our ciders at bars and restaurants because our fans have been so vehement about asking for us by name. To grow this category of craft cider, we have to ask that it be grown. Otherwise it is way too easy for a bar to just go with whatever low end macro stuff their distributor is slinging.  

 

Photographs by Minneapolis-based photographer Lauren Carpenter.