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.

Cooking 101: Cranberry Sauce

Freeze Ahead Cranberry Sauce Recipe
Cranberries, lemon + Orange, Granny Smith Apple, Sugar + Water 

Cranberries, lemon + Orange, Granny Smith Apple, Sugar + Water 

Somewhere between 1912 (cranberry sauce first hit the Thanksgiving Table) and 1941 (canned cran sauce hit the market) American's decided they needed to turn cranberry sauce into a jelly canned concoction feared and often ignored by many each Thanksgiving. But it doesn't have to be this way. Do you know why? Because making it couldn't be easier or more delicious. And if your life is upside down right now, and you need to somehow prepare some thanksgiving sides, the sauce can be made in under an hour weeks prior, safely stored in the freezer until show time.

INGREDIENTS
3 (12 ounce) bag fresh cranberries, cleaned
3 cups sugar
2 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Grated zest and juice of 2 oranges
Grated zest and juice of 2 lemon
2 cups of water

RECIPE
Cook the cranberries, sugar, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over low heat for until the skins pop open.
Stir often, this should be around 15 minutes or so.
Add the apple, zests, and juices and cook for 20 minutes more until things start to get real squishy.
Remove from the heat, let cool before filling freezer containers. 

Adapted from Ina Garten's, Make-Ahead Cranberry Sauce

 

Farm Story: Little Bend Heritage Farm

For many people, Thanksgiving is a time to sit down and eat piles of turkey surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones. The catch: Most of us still have no idea where our turkey came from or how it was raised. While much of the protein world has already shifted to healthy and humanely raised meat, the turkey has lagged behind. There are however a handful of wonderful turkey farmers growing healthy, happy, tasty turkeys right under our noses. We had the good fortune of getting to know one recently. 

If you were one of the lucky ones able to scoop up a pasture raised turkey from Little Bend Heritage Farm this year (they just sold out!), not only will you know exactly where your bird came from, you can feel pretty darn good knowing your bird lived a good life. The Bourbon Red Turkey is known to many chefs as the best tasting bird around, and thanks to the nice folks at Little Bend going out of their way to preserve this special breed of heritage turkey, next Thanksgiving your carving table can feature one.

Heritage Breeds by Definition
have a story to tell

We want to congratulate Steve and Little Bend Heritage Farm for the great work they do and for selling out of this year's turkeys. You can order turkeys next year from Little Bend directly or check out the crop shares available at Cooks of Crocus Hill. 

Little Bend Heritage Farm
26352 300th Street
Chatfield, MN 55923

Steve Berg, owner and full time farmer at Little Bend Heritage farm.    

Steve Berg, owner and full time farmer at Little Bend Heritage farm. 

 

    

 

 

99% of all turkeys raised in the Midwest are the “Broad-Breasted White” variety, sometimes also called the “Large White.”   These birds are raised in confinement in extremely crowded conditions on factory farms. The birds have little resemblance to those found in a more natural pasture setting like these Bourbon Reds.   

99% of all turkeys raised in the Midwest are the “Broad-Breasted White” variety, sometimes also called the “Large White.”  
These birds are raised in confinement in extremely crowded conditions on factory farms. The birds have little resemblance to those found in a more natural pasture setting like these Bourbon Reds.

 

What is the main mission of your farm?
To provide a great tasting, alternative meat selection that people know were humanely raised and to help save the Bourbon Red heritage turkey which is on the watch list of heritage animals.

Can you tell us about your operation?
We started raising Bourbon Red turkeys 3 years ago. We started out with 10 hens and 3 toms. This year we had 35 hens and 5 toms and we sold 300 eggs for hatching, 400 poults (baby turkeys), and 250 turkeys for processing. Next year we will have 75 hens and 15 toms and are forecasting selling 700 eggs, 750 poults, and 400 processed turkeys.

You guys are known for your Heritage Turkeys–what else is going on around the farm?
I got into beekeeping a couple of years ago and next year we will have 15 beehives which we will sell the honey and beeswax products. Also this year we decided to grow gourmet garlic so next summer we will be selling that as well.


Let’s talk heritage Turkeys, specifically the Bourbon Red, how did you guys arrive at this breed?
A co-worker’s children had raised some for a 4-H project and he did not want to keep them so I took them as I thought they would be a good meat source for my family. But after researching them and finding out that there were not many Bourbon Red turkeys left I knew I had to do something to help save these majestic animals. With more research I found that there is a niche market for the turkeys and I believe the best way to save the Bourbon Red turkey is through promotion to get people to eat them rather than the factory turkeys.


What exactly is a heritage turkey?
A heritage turkeys is a domestic turkey which has kept it historic characteristics from turkeys that were brought to America by the settlers and bred to the Native American wild turkeys. In order to be classified a heritage turkey the turkeys must meet the following criteria: 

  1. Naturally mating: The Heritage Turkey must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating, with expected fertility rates of 70-80%. This means that turkeys marketed as “heritage” must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
  2. Long productive outdoor lifespan: The Heritage Turkey must have a long productive lifespan. Breeding hens are commonly productive for 5-7 years and breeding toms for 3-5 years. The Heritage Turkey must also have a genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems.
  3. Slow growth rate: The Heritage Turkey must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Today’s heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the birds time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. This growth rate is identical to that of the commercial varieties of the first half of the 20th century.
The pasture allows the turkeys to roam and forage, increasing muscle while maintaining a happier flock. 99.5% of turkeys raised in Minnesota are not pasture raised, you can change this by supporting small heritage breed farmers.    

The pasture allows the turkeys to roam and forage, increasing muscle while maintaining a happier flock.
99.5% of turkeys raised in Minnesota are not pasture raised, you can change this by supporting small heritage breed farmers. 

 

Do Heritage Turkey’s require any specific cooking or preparation methods?
All heritage turkeys have a greater dark meat to light meat ratio and also given the fact that our Bourbon Red turkeys are not injected with a water/salt solution means that our turkey cooks faster than the standard factory turkeys you find in your grocery store. Other than the shorter cooking nothing else is different. However; the meat is more savory due to the slower growth period and the natural diet they receive. Check out their website for some of their trusted recipes.


What are the biggest challenges you’ll face or are currently facing this season?
Matching the amount of turkeys to raise to the customer demand. Unlike beef, pork, or chicken, turkey is mainly a seasonal meat and it is hard to get someone to think about a turkey until it gets close to Thanksgiving. This means we have to forecast demand very carefully as it take 6 months to grow our turkeys unlike the 3 months it take to raise a factory turkey.

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What are you most proud of this season?
Getting our website up and running, securing a large turkey contract to a major cooking school in the Twin Cities area, and being able to reach a large audience to teach them about our Bourbon Red turkeys but also about the simple heritage lifestyle.


How can people support what you’re doing?
The best way is to visit our website where you can buy our hatching eggs, poults, and our processed turkeys. Next year we plan to expand the store to include the honey and gourmet garlic as well. Also, people can visit our website and read our blogs and watch our videos as a way to support us and get the word out.


What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer?
Patience, and a love of animals and farming. A willingness to put all your heart and faith into the animals, the farm, and yourself.
 

Check out the wheels on this vintage manure spreader, no air needed!

Check out the wheels on this vintage manure spreader, no air needed!