Homegrown/Minnesota Cranberry Company – Minnesota’s only Cranberry Farm
WRITTEN BY REBECCA FLANSBURG | PHOTOGRAPHED BY CLAIRE CAMPBELL
WHEN WE THINK OF FARM CROPS COMMON IN MINNESOTA, TYPICALLY CRANBERRIES DON’T MAKE THAT LIST. But for one Aitkin County farm, cranberries have been a part of their sprawling 1,700-acre spread since 2001. The Forster family has spent the last sixteen years fine-tuning the art of growing these well-known berries on Minnesota’s only cranberry farm while also navigating the joys and frustrations that go hand-in-hand with farming.
Randy and Billie Jo Forster purchased the property in 2001 and currently their farm consists of one hundred acres of cranberry bogs (forty-seven of those are in production), six hundred acres of wild rice, two hundred acres of soybeans, and a small amount of hay to feed the family’s four horses. The cranberry portion of their business, known as Minnesota Cranberry Company, harvests and sells their crop to Ocean Spray; a partnership that as served the family well over the years. Soybeans are marketed through a Minneapolis company and their wild rice crop is shipped overseas and sold locally.
Randy is the only full-time farmer in the family, but when Billie Jo is not busy with her own business, Aitkin Quilts and Fabrics, she pitches in alongside her husband. The couple’s four children are also active helpers on the farm. Oldest daughter Samantha just graduated high school, has two years of college under her belt, and is currently in the final leg of basic training for the Minnesota National Guard. Amanda,15, pitches in after school or when she’s not working at Paulbeck’s County Market in Aitkin or acting as president of her local FFA chapter. Shannon, 14, is also active in FFA and as a budding artist, welds horseshoe art to sell. Nathan, 9, is also a valued helper on the family farm and a budding entrepreneur as well. In 2016 he raised and sold his own pumpkins, making over a thousand dollars for his college fund.
Cranberry farming is also a little more complex than seeds, soil and water, a fact that these veteran harvesters know well.
“Cranberries are a vine plant and it takes years to get a mature plant to bear fruit,”
Randy shared. “The vines go dormant in the winter so in the spring we cut the vine off about an inch from the top of the soil, roll them up into a bale and keep them watered and wet for about month. The vine root that remains in the ground will produce for up to twenty-five years, but these baled vines are good for filling in bad spots or winter kill in the fields. On our farm we grow Stevens and Ben Lear berries; two of the most common and most hardy varieties that do well in the acidic soil in our area.”
The process of getting the berries from field to market is non-typical as well. When Minnesotans hear the words “harvest time,” the vision that comes to mind is a row of farm tractors and heavy threshing machines. Cranberries are water-harvested from specially defined “bogs” that the plants grow in all summer and this process involves a mix of heavy farming machinery along with a fair share of manual labor as well.
“Around the first part of June, we flood the cranberry bogs one time for about twenty-four hours,” Randy noted. “This doesn’t hurt the young plants, but it is an effective and organic way to get rid of bugs and pests that can do damage. That process is repeated at harvest time which is around the end of September. This bog-flooding method allows the ripe berries to float to the surface and be harvested via our floating booms and other equipment. It’s simply easier to harvest berries that are floating on the surface.”
The cranberry growing season in Minnesota runs about three to four months and during that time it’s a seven-days-a-week job for the Forster family. Noting that there is only a small window of opportunity when it comes to gathering the crop, it’s “all hands on deck.” Once harvested, sorted, and loaded onto commercial trucks, the plump red berries make their way to their final destination.