Living the ‘Cranberry Way’
Harvesttime means family time for these Wisconsin siblings.
Harvesttime means family time for these Wisconsin siblings.
We are a brotherand-sister team continuing the family legacy of growing cranberries. I’m Sandy, and my brother David and I grew up on the family marsh, learning and living the “cranberry way.” Now we are seventh-generation cranberry growers in Wisconsin, the country’s top cranberry-producing state. We Potters are the longest continuous line of cranberry growers in the state. Our family’s marsh, the James Potter Cranberry Marsh, is in Warrens. David and his wife, Jamie, live next door with their children, Braydan and Brielle. My husband, Adam Nemitz, and I live with daughters Myla and Ada on a marsh that Adam’s family owns. Both of us work full time for our dad, Todd Potter. Dad and his mother, June Potter, spend a lot of time teaching us as many skills as they can. We often laugh because any time Dad steps in to help, he makes it look so easy. David manages the marshes, and I manage the business end of things. We are both down in the cranberry beds daily, however, getting our hands dirty and learning new skills. As the seasons change, so do our job descriptions. Winter months are spent maintaining equipment and renovating and sanding the beds. Spring is all about irrigation, frost watches, and gearing up for cranberry blossoms and bees. Summer is packed with irrigating, fertilizing, spraying and mowing. Fall means harvest. There is nothing we anticipate more than getting our 210 acres of cranberries harvested. We take a great deal of pride in our work and in watching our marsh and family grow from year to year. Our parents and grandparents put their hearts into the family business, and we want to see the James Potter Cranberry Marsh handed down to our children someday.
Heading into Harvest
Oct. 1 Sandy: October always means cranberry harvest in our family. Today is Sunday, however, so we pushed off harvesting chores until tomorrow. Instead, I took the girls to Myla’s first ice-skating lesson. When you grow up on a cranberry marsh, you get lots of opportunities to skate. In late December we flood the cranberry beds to build an ice layer thick enough to protect the vines from the harsh winter cold. As kids, we always took advantage of that ice by skating. I hope our girls enjoy this activity as much as I did. Oct. 2 Sandy: We recently acquired a smaller 21-acre marsh. We started harvesting that today, hoping to complete this work before we start the “big harvest” at our home marsh. We placed two blower tractors on both sides of the flooded bed, connected them with a bright yellow inflatable boom and pulled the cranberries to the berry pump. We use broad rakes to finish that task, which is labor-intensive. (To stay relatively dry, we wear the same kind of hip waders you see in Ocean Spray television commercials.) The pump sucks the cranberries up to an elevator that places them in a semitrailer to be transported to our receiving station. We could have finished today if there had been enough water on the beds. Instead, there’s one bed left to go. Oct. 3 David: The crew went to the smaller marsh to finish harvesting the last bed. I stayed back to put water on beds 1 and 2. By the time I got back to the home marsh, its beds were ready to be stripped. I drove the harrow through to remove the cranberries from the vines. Then Sandy, Rachel Jensen and I pulled risers (pipes with sprinkler heads) out of the beds in 27 acres of cranberries. I started the lift pump to flood the marsh, a process that will take two days to complete. At 8 p.m. I shut the water off for the night. Oct. 4 David: I started the lift pump to send more water onto the 27 acres we will harvest next. I then jumped on the Kubota tractor and began unspooling boom into bed No. 2. The inflatable boom sections off areas ready to be harvested. Sandy and Rachel worked together to tighten the boom
and pull cranberries to the bed’s northwest corner. I started pumping berries while they corralled them on the next bed. We harvested 3,500 barrels of cranberries by the time we were finished. Oct. 5 Sandy: I was taken aback when I learned that two of the four people I hired to help with today’s harvest didn’t show up. But thankfully, the two people who did show up had experience and were willing to work just as hard as the rest of us. The weather was good, nothing broke down, and we harvested our daily quota of cranberries. All in all, it was a great day. Oct. 6 Sandy: We got in some good exercise this morning by pulling pipes out of the beds. Many people dread this job because it takes so much physical effort. I don’t mind the work, though. I enjoy the fact that once this pipe is out, we are that much closer to harvesting cranberries. Plus, we won’t need to frost watch those beds. We have to be ready to leap into action if alarms go off during the spring and fall, when the temperature dips below 32 degrees. When the alarms sound, we flood the beds so blossoms and cranberries are protected from frost damage by a layer of ice. I spent most of my day working at the berry pump with David. After lunch, I moved ramps for Dad while he harrowed. The harrow can go only one direction up or down the bed; otherwise it will ruin the cranberry vines. So we used a tractor to place ramps on each end, and move them as the harrow makes its way through the bed. Oct. 7 David: The roads were really muddy today thanks to constant rain, so our semitrailers got stuck throughout the day. We kept towing equipment on hand to pull vehicles out of the muddy terrain. Even with all the rain, we finished harvesting all five beds by the end the day. So, everyone gets the day off tomorrow except for Sandy and me.
Pulling Pipe, Pumping Berries
Oct. 8 David: After flooding five more sections of cranberry beds, I started stripping berries. I was able to do two beds on my own because we had installed drive-in ramps on two ends
of each bed. Sandy and I finished harrowing all five sections by 2:30 p.m. She drove a trailer to box scrape, or smooth out, the roads that got torn up yesterday from all the rain. Oct. 9 Sandy: We pulled pipe again this morning because it’s probably going to freeze tonight. We wanted to get proper water coverage over the cranberries; one bad freeze could ruin an entire crop. Oct. 10 David: With seven people pulling pipe on the five larger beds, we finished by 9:30 a.m. We then began picking up berries on bed No. 14. The trucks had to back down long, narrow dikes—the roads that separate beds—to be loaded. The dikes quickly became muddy, which meant we had to pull stuck-in-mud semitrailers in and out of position with a loader. But the remainder of the day’s harvest went smoothly. After an early dinner, I returned to help a co-worker pull the remaining pipe off the marsh. Since this was the last line of irrigation on the home marsh, being done meant no more frost watch for me until next spring! Oct. 11 Sandy: All of us feel exhausted after 10 straight days of harvesting. Today I moved ramps so Dad could harrow, then I helped David, Jason Donovan and Joe Smugden at the berry pump. The four of us really have a good routine going now. We all know our jobs and share the goal of getting all the cranberries out of each bed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Oct. 12 David: An arm broke today on Rachel’s blower tractor. I welded a piece of angle iron to it, hoping the quick fix will get us through harvest. I’ll repair it properly when we have downtime later on. By 8:30 a.m. the crew and I were pumping, Dad was harrowing and Sandy was moving ramps. Bed No. 11 delivered 465 barrels to the acre. An excellent crop! Oct. 13 Sandy: The crew and I don’t want to work on Saturday, so we were on a mission to get done harvesting the home marsh today. We hurried and finished only an hour after our normal quitting time. It was pouring rain and muddy, but we did it!
Meeting Our Quota
Oct. 15 Sandy: After lunch, Adam asked me to move ramps so he could harrow. He has been really busy with his family’s cranberry marsh as well as the marsh that he and I own. So I jumped right in to help him get the job done. Oct. 16 David: We moved harvest equipment to Spring Valley to begin picking up cranberries there. We met our quota plus one extra truckload by 4:25 p.m. Oct. 17 Sandy: Since the blower tractors still had half a bed’s worth of berries to pull down with the boom, we manually pulled the cranberries into the pump. We were reminded how nice it is that tractors normally do this job for us. Oct. 18 Sandy: Today was great! The weather was beautiful and things moved along nicely. We knew our receiving station would be at max capacity today—which meant we couldn’t send in any more berries than we had agreed to provide. We met our daily quota and filled three additional semitrailers with cranberries. Those trailers will wait until morning to be sent to the receiving station. If all goes well, we should finish by noon tomorrow. Oct. 20 Sandy: Today it felt as if my life was getting back to normal, despite the fact that 16 acres of late-harvest cranberries are still waiting for us. After running to the apple orchard for cider and apples, Myla and I hurried home so I could do the bookkeeping for six marshes plus a related business. I couldn’t believe how many phone calls I had to make! Oct. 21 Sandy: Since this was my first real day off in more than a month, I took the girls to Wisconsin Dells to play at the trampoline park. We ate lunch at a restaurant where the food is delivered to the table by a toy train. The girls got a kick out of that!
Preparing for Winter
Oct. 23 David: I pulled our small bulldozer up to the shop to be washed and repaired. We replaced old and worn-out rails and final drive sprocket segments with new ones. It took me all day to unscrew the machine’s 328 bolts and remove the 82 pads. Oct. 24 David: Jason, Rachel and Sandy got our three earth-moving haul trucks ready to renovate the beds this winter. We’ll also use an excavator to dig out old cranberry vines. Once the beds are covered with enough ice to support heavy equipment, we’ll dump on sand hauled out of the reservoir. When the ice melts the following spring, the sand will fall and replenish the soil at the bottom of the beds. Oct. 25 Sandy: After lunch, David, Rachel and I connected all the sections of pipe that we pulled from beds. That prevents mice from making nests inside the pipes, which plugs sprinkler nozzles come spring. No one really enjoys this job
because it’s time-consuming and involves repeatedly bending down and standing up. Oct. 26 David: We began pulling pipe on the last 16 acres of cranberries left to harvest at our Spring Valley marsh. Later, Rachel and Jason worked on an excavator at the home marsh while Sandy and I finished putting pipe together. We also hauled pipe away from beds that will be torn up this winter. Oct. 27 David: Dean Griffin and I finished stripping beds at the Spring Valley marsh by 11 a.m. We parked the berry pump in his shop for the weekend so I didn’t have to drain the hoses. Temperatures are predicted to be below freezing all weekend. Oct. 28 Sandy: It was Adam’s first real day off in months, and we told him he could do whatever he wanted to do today. So he bought some salt and mineral blocks for the deer and put deer cameras out in the woods in preparation for rifle-hunting season. David said he’s going to spend the entire weekend with Jamie and his kids. Oct. 30 Sandy: We finished our last stretch of harvest today. I don’t think the temperature ever got above 38 degrees. We even had a snow and sleet storm. We will do our cleanup tomorrow, but for now, we can relax because all the cranberries have been sent away. Adam and I made our favorite cranberry relish tonight from a recipe his mom gave us. The girls helped by sorting cranberries and peeling oranges. They also kept sneaking their favorite ingredient: miniature marshmallows. Oct. 31 Sandy: My girls woke up to a fun surprise this morning— Halloween goody bags they got to enjoy before school. I then hurried out the door to get Ada and Brielle to preschool. By the time I got to work, the crew had already begun the harvest cleanup. We brought all the equipment back to our home marsh to be cleaned and stored until next season.
Sandy Nemitz moves ramps with a tractor so a harrow can drive into flooded cranberry beds.
Todd Potter (center) with his children, Sandy Nemitz and David Potter.
The berry pump (center) sucks up the floating cranberries and sorts them from stray leaves and vines. Berries then go in the semitruck (left) and debris moves to the “trash truck” (right).