It has been a half-decade of highs and lows among Wisconsin’s cranberry farms. Much of that can be chalked up to Mother Nature.
After a tough summer, with harvest imminent, 2021 is looking to be a year of sub-average productivity, finishing just below the five-year curve. Surprisingly, it’s an encouraging conclusion to a stretch defined by irregularity.
“It’s an interesting growing season and none of them are really the same,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. “The last five years have been, I think, probably more of a recovery time for us. Ten years ago, the cost of supply and inventory started to build and we saw lower returns, so profits dipped below production. Now, we’re just about break even. We’re feeling better.”
That tallies to about 490 million pounds of fruit, less than the 525 to 550 million pounds of fruit Wisconsin’s cranberry farms rake in during a typical year.
Cranberries are perennial crops grown in boggy lowlands. They can be vulnerable to sudden temperature changes, which were a major issue during 2021.
Lochner pointed to winter damage earlier this year, then swings between 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit in June and July. Adequate rainfall in August helped mitigate an otherwise dry summer.
That, Lochner said, and the Stevens variety — the “workhorse” strain of cranberries that account for roughly 60% of all production — performed poorly this year, setting the industry back.
All things considered, Lochner said it was a testament to luck and the industry that cranberry farms are, generally speaking, finishing the year with solid returns. The last couple years have been defined by challenging weather patterns that hampered production. Years before that, it was artificial caps mandated by the industry to curb output and salvage retail profits.
Now, Lochner said, there’s signs everything is returning to a semblance of stability, even if the signs aren’t as positive as they may seem on the surface.
“Overall, it’s an average year. It isn’t stupendous, but it’s not a disaster,” Lochner said. “I think most growers would take that.”
Crop progress report
Wisconsin farms are coming off a week of a below average precipitation and mostly average temperatures, though this varies greatly across the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wisconsin Crop Progress report released Monday, Sept. 13.
“In the central part of the state, it’s been pretty good. We’ve gotten adequate rainfall, depending on where you’re at,” said Richard Halopka, a crops and livestock agent with UW-Extension in Clark County. “But, there has been some hiccups that are challenging farmers.”
One hiccup? Hail. Some farms are recovering after storms rolled through a stretch between Appleton to Fond du Lac and south to the Illinois border on Sept. 7.
Topsoil moisture conditions were rated at 11% very short, 13% short, 70% adequate and 6% surplus across the state. In turn, subsoil conditions were rated 11% very short, 14% short, 68% adequate and 7% surplus.
Ninety-four percent of corn is at the dough-stage or beyond, which is five days behind last year’s intrepid pace, but still more than a week ahead of the five-year average. Corn conditions were rated 74% good to excellent, while 25% of silage has been harvested.
“So even though it falls short of the progress of last year — which we considered the ideal growing season — this season has been pretty close to that,” said Jerry Clark, an agriculture educator with UW-Extension in Chippewa County. “Except for that dry spell that we had maybe in the early part of June, but I guess if you’re going to have a dry spell that’s the time to have it.”
“Hopefully, we have good weather through October into November,” Clark added. “That it’s a drier season and maybe a little bit above normal warmth in order to dry that rain down so farmers can save on those energy costs.”
As for soybeans, 70% is coloring, which is dead even with last year, but remains five days ahead of the average. Twenty-two percent of the crop is dropping leaves, in line with 73% being rated good to excellent.
Halopka said farmers have to be vigilant with the soybean crop, as he’s receiving reports of pesticide-resistant weeds emerging. If that’s the case, those weeds need to be identified and mitigated before next year’s crop.
Forty percent of the potato harvest is complete. Potato conditions are rated 86% good to excellent, which falls four percentage points from last week.
A fifth of the winter wheat crop has been planted, which is more than a week behind last year’s pace, but still three days ahead of the five-year average.
The third cutting of alfalfa is 96% complete and the fourth cutting 68% complete, which is four days ahead of last year and six days ahead of the five-year average.
Pasture conditions were rated 60% good to excellent, which marks a three point drop from last week.