Future Farmers of America (FFA) is the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business, and technology of agriculture.
To support FFA’s members and their contribution to ag, Dirt to Dinner is please to introduce Tyler Gardner. Here is a Q&A from Tyler’s point of view.
Tyler Gardner is one hard-working college student. His education in ag started with working various positions at his family’s cranberry marsh. As his experience broadened, his mission evolved to produce healthy and sustainable food for generations to come.
Tyler, tell us a little bit about your background, family, and studies.
I grew up and currently live on one of my family’s cranberry marshes in Pittsville, Wisconsin, a small town in central Wisconsin.
I am currently attending the University of Wisconsin River Falls and majoring in Agriculture Business.
I hope to use my degree in Ag Business to obtain a job in the ag industry and eventually come back and work within the family’s business.
What is your favorite part of working on your family farm?
My favorite part of working on my family’s farm is the feeling of pride and ownership. It is not just a job, but it’s a way of life for my family.
My father taught me from a young age the value of hard work and to never quit until the job gets done. These values have always stuck with me and it reminds me to keep working hard because someday that marsh could be mine.
It is also very rewarding to work throughout the summer months on a crop and then see your hard work pay off in the fall.
“It is just a great feeling of accomplishment to know that all the early mornings and late nights over the summer paid off to grow your cranberry crop. Seeing the final crop at the end of the year is by far the most rewarding feeling and it is one that is truly hard to describe unless you’re a grower.”
Tell us about your cranberry operation…how long has it been in the family?
My family’s cranberry operation began back in the early 1990s with my uncle, Butch Gardner, and my father, Tom Gardner. The first cranberry bogs that they planted were on the marsh that I grew up on. They proceeded to grow the family business by building and planting more cranberry marshes in the Pittsville area. They then began to buy other marshes around the state.
We currently operate around 2,000 acres of cranberry bogs. Along with growing cranberries, my family also has built cold storages and cranberry processing plants. This has streamlined the processing for our cranberry juice concentrate and sweetened dried cranberry products.
How is farming cranberries different from other crops?
Cranberries are a crop that needs to be taken care of all year long, but once springs rolls back around that is when the cranberry vines come out of dormancy and they begin to start growing again.
What is needed to grow cranberries is sandy soil, a large water source, and the correct climate. The cranberry’s root systems grow best in the sandy soil because cranberries need more acidic soil to grow in. The sandy soil also makes it ideal for drainage.
It sounds like cranberries can’t grow just anywhere…
Cranberries need to stay moist, but cannot be saturated for long periods, because it can create rotten fruit and damage the plant’s roots. We also need a large water source to grow cranberries, because in the summer months we need to irrigate the plants, and then in fall, we need the water to harvest the crop. We also never use any high-pressure wells, rather we reuse water from large bodies of water such as ponds and reservoirs. Lastly, having the correct climate is the last most important part of growing this fruit.
Cranberries can only be grown in certain parts of the world because of their very specific climate needs. The area where I am from, for example, is a perfect area because cranberries need warm summer months for the growing season, the cool falls months to change their color, and the cold winter months so that they can go into dormancy until the next growing season.
How do you harvest your crop?
Harvest for this crop begins with the flooding of the cranberry beds. Our cranberry beds are in a rectangle shape with dikes and ditches surrounding them, this makes it possible to add and take water off the cranberry beds. Once there is about a foot or two of water in the cranberry bed, we then take a large rake attached to a tractor and drive into the cranberry bed and knock the berries off the vine.
Once they are all knocked off the vines then we added another two feet of water into the bed to completely flood the vines. Cranberries naturally have 4 little air pockets that allow them to float to the top of the water.
Then we take float boom to corral all the cranberries together and then we take a berry pump and pump the cranberries out of the bed and put them into semi-trucks to take the cranberries to market.
Cranberry vines produce a crop every year and usually do not need to be planted twice or every year. There are even some cranberry vines that are over 100 years old and still producing a crop. But the biggest reason why people do replant or renovate cranberry beds is to create a better producing bed with vines that are going to give them a better yield. So yes, we do use the same vines (bushes) and reuse (plant) exiting vines into new beds. When we plant cranberry vines, we take the cuttings off existing cranberry vines and place them into the ground into a new bed. It takes about three years for these new cranberry vines to develop and start producing well.
What is processing cranberries like?
What makes our cranberry operation unique is that we can clean, store, and process our cranberries ourselves. The process for cranberries begins with the “cleaning station”. Cranberries are hauled into the station with semi-trucks and they are stored and cleaned. In the cleaning process, only the best berries are selected to be placed into storage. After the cranberries are cleaned and sorted, they are placed in large wooden boxes and then sent to the freezer where they stay until they are needed for processing. Fresh cranberries can stay in the freezer for up to two years before they are processed.
Cranberries are cleaned and sorted using machines such as shaker tables and specialty cleaning equipment made for cranberries. We don’t use robotics during the cleaning process, but before the cranberries go into further processing, we use robotics to sort out all the light-colored berries or any unusable cranberries that were not taken out during cleaning.
The cranberries are then taken out of the freezer and transported to the proccing plant, where they are processed into jams, sauces, juices, and my favorite, sweetened dried cranberries.
Tell us about your pest and weed management practices.
Because of our abundant acreage across Wisconsin, we have hired and trained our scouting team. This way, we have resources for our growers year-round on all pest, weed, and other growth management practices. This team works hand-in-hand with each property manager to discuss, discover, and decide what is best for that particular property.
Our scouting season starts in early May and goes until late August where the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) team surveys the marsh and identifies weeds as well as monitors pest pressure.
The team then correlates the information with growing degree days and pheromone traps and will conclude if anything is at an economic threshold—or is at the level where is it damaging your crops enough that you will see a decrease in yield.
If a weed or pest hit an economic threshold, the team and the manager will come together and decide on the best solution promptly. Because we are growing fruit for human consumption, we are extra cautious and sustainable in all our practices here at Gardner Cranberry.
What are some of your sustainable practices?
We take a lot of pride in our sustainable practices as a large cranberry grower in Wisconsin. All the fruit we grow is approved to the highest market standard and can be shipped anywhere in the world. The unique thing about cranberries is the large amount of water we recycle and reuse during all seasons of the year. We have reservoirs that hold our water for all irrigation, frost, and flooding events. These large reservoirs bring with them a diverse ecosystem that includes anything from floating peat bogs to native Tamarack trees and migratory birds.
Because our system is naturally integrated, our top priority is always to use sustainable and regenerative practices.
We understand our system works best when everything is in its natural state and can work together. During the springtime, we have an opportunity to do a spring flood to control our first major pest of the season – the spanworm. If the timing works out, we use our water to flood up the cranberry beds until the vines are fully submerged and we keep it on for 48 hours to kill any live insect activity in our vines.
This is a great regenerative option that we conduct at least once every season. By doing this, we naturally eliminate a large pest concern and we avoid using any alternative options.
We want consumers to understand that our family not only eats these cranberries, but we also live and work on these properties – it is essential for the land to be healthy, safe, and sustainable for generations to come.