By Amanda Kimble-Evans
Ruesch Century Farm (www.organic-cranberries.com) has more than one claim to fame. They’re a 131-year old family farm that has seen four generations working the land, they were the first certified organic cranberry farm in Wisconsin, and they hand-rake their cranberry beds with a modernized version of an historical tool. We caught up with Brian Ruesch to hear more about how and why they do what they do.
What made you decide to grow cranberries organically?
As a young man, my father harvested cranberries for the big growers in Wood County, Wisconsin—the largest cranberry producing county in the world. He paid for this farm through his hard work on those cranberry farms.
In the early 1990s, for retirement, he put in a quarter-acre cranberry bed and never got into using the chemicals since it was just a hobby. When the bushes started producing, he found out he could get certified and sell them organically. The farm became the first certified organic cranberry farm in Wisconsin and possibly the first in the nation (although we’re not sure). So, we’re kind of organic by accident.
My wife and I purchased the farm from my parents in 2005. We’re now up to one acre and growing. We’re hoping to expand our cranberry beds 4-fold in the near future.
Tell me a little bit about how you harvest. It’s pretty unique, right?
Being very small, we made a decision to hand harvest in a dry-method because of the storage capabilities. If you’re gentle with the cranberries, they can last for several months.
We have Amish-made cranberry rakes and everything is done without water as an aide to the harvest. The result is very little shrinkage on our berries over the months and less damaged fruit. And we allow volunteers to help us rake. They can be part of something that would have happened 125 years ago.
And pests? I’ve heard growing cranberries organically is incredible difficult due to insect-pressure.
There is a period of time in late May when we flood the beds and that decreases the amount of black-headed fireworms. Around July when the berries start forming we do use some organically-approved products that help reduce the amount of fruit worm that would normally appear at that time. And that is about all we can do.
The yield on organic cranberries is much lower than conventionally-grown. A conventional cranberry grower, if they’re good at it, might average 30,000 pounds per acre. In organic production it is not unusual to have 3,000 to 5,000 pound per acre.
So for me it is vital to get as many good berries as I can, which it why we hand rake. We do have a mechanical picker for dry harvesting. But, what I see is a substantial amount of bruised berries when you do it that way. Once they’re packaged and on the store shelves, they deteriorate much faster.
Do you grow or raise anything else?
We have a maple ridge and do maple syrup every year. And my brother puts in about a half-acre of buckwheat that we grind on-farm and sell as flour. Our relatives come up to our small hunting camp every year and we treat them to a sourdough buckwheat pancake breakfast.
I do have a job off of the farm, too, so I don’t actively farm the rest of our acreage. But the whole farm is certified organic and we have some area farmers who do hay and grasses on a portion of the land.
How have you seen the agricultural community changed over the last 10 years?
When I was a young man, there was something like 1300 or 1500 dairy farms in the county. We raised cows and actually hand milked them. Now it’s down to 300 or 400 dairy farms. It has been sad to see the farming community dissolving in central Wisconsin.
So many farmers have gone and are going out of business. You just can’t make a living dairying anymore. The prices the farmers are getting are no different than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but the costs have gone up. The farms that are around now are just going to growing grain or raising young stock to sell to the larger farms. When you look at the 14-hour days you’re putting in and the debt, it is easy to give up and go get a 9 to 5 job that actually pays the bills.
Many of the historic barns are falling apart and much of the marginal land on those old farms has just gone back to wild. We have a barn that’s over 100 years old on our farm and decided this year we don’t want to see it go the way of other barns in the area, so we did some preservation work on it.
What do you see as the biggest hope for farmers?
If consumers are willing to invest more in their food, it would inspire more farmers to go organic. And the distribution model needs to change a bit. Local food campaigns and farmers’ markets and CSAs are helping. Reconnecting the consumers to the people who are producing the food is probably the biggest hope.
When consumers can come out to the farm and bring their children and see how the food is grown, they’re suddenly willing to spend a little more on that food. Any movement takes time, but the movement has started. It is a real positive for farming.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a farmer and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?
Marketing the product is the biggest challenge. Answering the question: How can I become distinguished among all the farms doing the same thing? Being small is both a curse and a blessing. Being big, the distribution is ready-made, but you can’t distinguish yourself from the other farms. We’re automatically different because we’re small, but you have to work harder on getting your product out there.
How we handle the product makes us unique. And there are people out there who are willing to support us because they appreciate the work we do.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
The most obvious tool is my cranberry rake. Otherwise I’d be doing it by hand! Incidentally we could harvest by hand like they did in the 1800s, but people would only get about 100 pounds a day and get paid something like one dollar for that 100 pounds. Yep, I think that’s one tool we couldn’t live without!