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Flooded markets: Cranberry marshes enjoy Thanksgiving rush

For the American cranberry grower, there isn’t a holiday on the calendar quite like Thanksgiving. Whether it’s juice, sauce, stuffing, pie, pudding, cookies, or casserole, the cranberry enjoys its highest point of popularity during November festivities.

Americans consume 400 million pounds of cranberries in a given year and 80 million pounds of that, roughly 20%, is eaten on Thanksgiving. Based on 2015 studies by KRC Research, no less than 96% of households incorporate cranberries into their spread when they sit down with friends and family during the holiday.

Naturally, in Wisconsin — which has been the leading cranberry producer in the United States and the world for decades — Thanksgiving cranberry sales are a major economic driver for many communities across the state.

“It’s very important. Thanksgiving is the majority of our sales every year,” said Nodji Van Wychen, proprietor of Wetherby Cranberries Co., a multi-generational operations near Warrens. “The holiday season, especially Thanksgiving, represents a healthy, stable period for cranberry growers and demand is only growing each year.”

For Amber Bristow, a fifth-generation farmer at Russell Rezin and Son Cranberry Marsh Inc. near Warrens, cranberries’ continued popularity is grounded in a number of factors.

The consumption of the berry is steeped in tradition. Long before Europeans set foot in North America, indigenous communities were using cranberries as a food staple, dye, medicinal ingredient and more.

Cranberries gained cultural clout when Marcus Urann, Elizabeth Lee and John Makepeace, three farmers from Hanson, Massachusetts, invented a gelatinous cranberry sauce to preserve surpluses of unsold cranberries. They then founded Ocean Spray in 1930 to help drive sales.

But there’s a modern wrinkle to the cranberry phenomenon, Bristow said. Cranberries are regarded as a super fruit, with some of the strongest concentrations of antioxidants in the American diet and high nutritional value that helps kidneys, lowers blood pressure, improves eyesight and more. Younger consumers are keying off this aspect in particular.

“Obviously, Thanksgiving is kind of the highlight of the cranberry season,” said Bristow, whose operation directly sends its crop to Ocean Spray. “It’s so great to see people battle, like, ‘Which way do you prefer it? Homemade or out of the can?’ So as long as people are enjoying cranberries around the holiday season, that’s all we really care about.”

Bristow and Van Wychen said sales have also increased during the pandemic as Americans stayed home and discovered new ways to enjoy cranberries. This means that cranberries will likely remain a treasured favorite of the holiday for decades to come, but it also points to more and more uses for the tangy little fruit in other parts of the year.

“Our marketing really took off,” Bristow said. “More people are getting into finding different ways to consume cranberries outside of the holidays as well. So that’s been really great to see. More people are getting excited about cranberries again.”

The art of eating pheasant

It might be the last beautiful day of autumn and I’m walking through thigh-high fields of prairie grass and wilted wildflowers outside Chippewa Falls with my friend Jim Murray and his bird-dog, Sadie. A Wisconsin pheasant hunter could not possibly dream of better conditions. The sun is bright, the air so warm you might consider shedding a jacket, and the grasses are not even wet with dew or melted frost. The sort of day that has the quality of a photograph — you want to record the moment for times ahead when the weather will not be so mild, when you might be sick abed, or when the responsibilities of your life do not allow for such wonderful frivolity.

Not five minutes into our hunt, Sadie flushes a rooster 30 feet ahead of us, and both Jim and I fire nearly simultaneously. The bird falls out of the sky and Sadie retrieves it.

“Nice shot,” Jim says, though I can’t believe that it wasn’t him who really dropped the bird. Jim is a retired CPA, a former partner at Baker Tilly, and one of the kindest, gentlest and most thoughtful men you’ll ever encounter. He has also served as the treasurer of the Chippewa Valley Chapter of Pheasants Forever for so long he can only define his tenure by demurring “for over 15 years.” If he hadn’t been a CPA, it might be easy to imagine him as a diplomat or ambassador. His voice is cheerful and optimistic but leavened with a dry sense of humor. He coaxes the dead bird into the game bag at my back and we move on.

My friend Doug Duren, the great Wisconsin conservationist, calls folks like me “late onset hunters” and that feels right and true. For most of my life, hunting did not appeal to me. But recently, I’m trying to build time for mornings with friends like Jim, and yes, Sadie. The hunt has nothing to do with the act of killing an organism, but rather, time outdoors, exercise (Jim and I will walk over five miles and Sadie will log much more than that), and the fellowship. That a hunter might totally downplay or disconnect killing and death from the hunt might seem antithetical or even oxymoronic, but I suppose there is the sense that the pheasant still warm at the small of my back in the game bag is as ephemeral as the day, or the clouds overhead. Jim, Sadie and I are not chasing blue whales or elephants. We are not hunting a charismatic creature that is endangered or many decades old. Pheasants are, after all, an exotic species.

Look at one up-close, run your fingers through its feathers, and you might be reminded of a miniature peacock.

An hour or so later, Jim has the shot of the day. A bird flushes near me and I take a clumsy shot. The pheasant then flies away and uphill from us. By the time Jim fires his shotgun, the bird is a good 25 feet off the prairie and 30 or more yards away. The pheasant plummets to the earth. I congratulate Jim on his shooting, and he politely shrugs off the praise simply citing years of practice. But it’s difficult not to connect his old vocation to that perfect shooting. As always, Jim is calm and patient. As exacting as an accountant.

Just before we part ways, I ask Jim if he has a preferred method for cooking pheasant. He can’t recall a particular recipe, but he does endorse a slow cooking time, six hours or more. We shake hands and I drive back Eau Claire and the obligations that await me.

Eventually, my wife seizes upon a recipe from Good Housekeeping. Nothing fancy. Dredge the pheasant in flour and sear in hot pan with bacon grease. Then into a crockpot filled with celery, onions, carrots, apple cider and bacon. Time does the work of gently cooking the bird, and building a nice gravy, too. In the final half hour of cooking, toss two or three sliced apples into the crockpot. That night, I ladle out a breast, a leg and a thick puddle of gravy. I eat the meal slowly, with slices of good bread and butter, so that I may wipe the dish clean.

There is an art to eating pheasant. One can not simply gorge on pheasant the way they might disappear a plate of fried chicken. The reason is that the pheasant likely carries in its flesh evidence of the hunt in the form of shot. Steel pellets. So, despite the firm, succulent meat, the rich gravy, and the well-cooked vegetables, one is tasked with chewing their meal deliberately, slowly, exploringly. Most bites do not contain any shot. And after a dozen or so forkfuls of shot-free pheasant, a diner may grow bold, eating faster, chewing less cautiously. This would be a mistake. Ultimately, there will be a sinking moment when a bite of pheasant near your molars suddenly produces a sickeningly loud crunch that is enamel on steel. Then there is the work of sifting through a mouthful of food to extract something the size of a small peppercorn. In the past, I’ve set a shot-glass on the table to display all the foreign metal in a meal of pheasant. I should add, a cold glass of French wine helps aid this meal for a multitude of reasons.

But, in this way, eating slowly, purposefully, I can relive my morning with Sadie and Jim, and those dry prairie grasses, and beautiful birds bursting into the early November sky. I am grateful for the friends in my life — almost without exception older men — who have invited me into the woods and prairies with them to learn more about hunting. Better late than never.

Agribusiness braces for shopping rush amid supply chain crisis

As the United States enters the 2021 holiday season, supply chain issues are coming to the fore in American life. For agriculturists across the country, breakdowns in the global network have been painfully evident since the first days of the pandemic.

“We started to see these issues when states were shutting down businesses, when there were closing economies,” said Mark Rhoda-Reis, director of the Export and Business Development Bureau for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “It’s not like it’s peaked and it’s falling. It’s still peaking.”

“A lot of companies are struggling,” he added. “We haven’t reached that tipping point yet. They’re resorting to raising prices to mitigate these additional costs and you’re going to see that price point for consumers.”

It can be difficult to quantify just how ubiquitous and dire supply-chain failures are, both here and abroad, but a picture is emerging.

A survey by the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, which represents exporters, found that, on average, 22% of foreign agriculture sales were being lost as a result of transportation challenges.

Nearly half, or 48%, of small business owners are experiencing severe disruptions in the supply-chain, according to a study by the National Federation of Independent Business. In contrast, only 6% reported they were unaffected by supply-chain issues.

According to a 2022 study by Third Party Logistics conducted this spring, 83% of shippers reported disruption in the supply of key materials this year compared to 49% of respondents in the 2021 survey that analyzed market conditions in 2020.

And disruptions only look to get worse in the next few months, as Western shoppers order products en masse for the upcoming holiday season, while the Chinese New Year poses a challenge in early 2022.

“We’re really struggling. It’s a nightmare and I don’t see it getting better any faster. I actually see it getting worse,” said Cindy Brown, president of Chippewa Valley Bean near Menomonie, one of the largest bean exporters in the world.

“Customers are waiting, but we can’t get the product to them. It’s everything, but, you know, you just do what you have to do to try and get the product in.”

The modern supply chain is an international, fine-tuned and delicate trade system dictated by momentary shifts in supply, demand and transport capacity. When disruptions occur and there aren’t enough shippers or containers to go around, it leaves companies — both great and small — fighting to secure what transport they can and scrambling to find alternative means when they can’t.

Brown noted Chippewa Valley Bean has been fortunate that kidney beans are a perishable product, but that isn’t the case for, say, dairy producers who need to operate on a consistent, predictable time scale. When supply chains fail and foreign markets dry up, dairies have been forced to dump weeks of production and shoulder the losses.

“I know plenty of dairies in the area that either had to dump milk or were told by their co-op or creamery that they needed to cut back on milk,” said Derek Orth, a dairy farmer in Grant County. “There’s definitely some issues. When we order something, we don’t know if we’ll get it in five days or five weeks.”

That’s the other side of the coin. Inputs are struggling just the same as outputs and when an operation needs, say, repair parts — whether they’re as big as Chippewa Valley Bean, or smaller like the Orth farm — it can set them back days and even weeks if shipping delays occur.

Orth said he’s seen cash croppers abandon hundreds of acres of ripe, harvestable grain, all because they couldn’t find a single part to repair their combine and had to wait weeks for it to ship.

“I think the end is coming and things are going to get straightened back out, but it’s a lot of things,” Orth said. “There’s a lot of these causes that are overlapping.”

So what is driving global supply-chain issues? Of course, the single greatest factor is COVID-19, which instigates or exacerbates just about every problem the world economy is currently facing.

Then, too, there’s also criticisms of the modern supply chain itself. Critics have pointed to its emphasis on fast-paced, immediate availability, while products are sourced through vast trade lines across the globe to satisfy impatient customers and risk-averse companies. In short, this may create a system that’s fast but brittle.

The Third Party Logistics study indicated that 68% of international shippers believe a more localized, regionally-sourced model is better.

There’s a litany of other factors as well: Labor shortages, which can result in everything from fewer truck drivers, to a lack of repair technicians, to a shortage of customs officials that process shipments. There’s labor strikes, such as the recent one at John Deere, which pose an additional hiccup.

Material shortages, such as steel scarcity, are a problem. Brown noted steel shortages affect everything from the availability of cargo ships, to the amount of steel cans her bean company can use. Orth pointed to other things, like a shortage of bottles and other containers capable of transporting milk.

There’s also international trade dynamics and trade wars to consider.

As things are, it can cost shipping lines five times as much to ship products out of Los Angeles then into it. Incentivized by higher profit margins, many of these companies deliver their consignments, then turn around and leave without onboarding American products so they can deal with Latin American, European and especially East Asian manufacturers. This turns American seaports from outlets into bottlenecks.

And then there’s the fact that demand for most sectors of the economy hasn’t decreased, but increased in recent months. Just as supply chains are buckling under the strain, they’re being asked to carry a heavier load.

“Actually, a year to date in September, there was nearly a 18%, or 17.8%, increase in demand and that’s across the board on all products. But, if we look at various product groups, they’re all up in double digits,” Rhoda-Reis said. “I think a lot of that is a rebound from suppressed demand during the pandemic. There’s a not a lot of excess capacity. If you pull back now and try to catch up, there isn’t a lot of room.”