I am a fifth generation cranberry farm owner of King Cranberries in Augusta. My great great grandfather, Charles Dempze, started growing cranberries in the year 1900 when he was 12-years-old in central Wisconsin.

Photos courtesy of Rochelle Hoffman

Rochelle Hoffman | Augusta, Wisconsin

He eventually became the owner of what is now Dempze Cranberry in Wisconsin Rapids. He also invented a push dry rake machine in the 1930s that is still used today among growers when harvesting fresh fruit. It acts like a large rake and pulls cranberries off the vines. 

Our farm homestead is still there, where my mom and dad live and currently run the family-owned operation. Dempze Cranberry and King Cranberries are sister companies. My husband and I purchased King Cranberries in 2012 and are licensed to grow and sell hybrids of cranberry plants to other farmers. 

Cranberry farming sounds like it’s a big operation. But, at King Cranberries, it’s just me and my husband. At Dempze Cranberry, it’s just my mom and dad and one employee. We are literally the growers, harvesters, producers–we’re doing it all. A few people lend a hand during harvest, but other than that, it’s just us–we’re the crew. We harvest close to two million pounds of cranberries a year. 

Cranberries are hollow fruits. Each fruit has four air pocket chambers, which allows them to be buoyant. More than 150 years ago, harvesting cranberries was all done by hand. Then, hand rake tools were invented and used to rake cranberries off the vine. In the 1950s, cranberry farmers started to wet harvest, where they temporarily flooded their cranberry beds and knocked the fruit off with a picker. Fast forward to today, we still flood the beds with water but use a tractor to comb through the beds and mechanically knock the cranberries off the vine, allowing them to float to the top. Farming has really progressed from the days of handpicking. Today we load them right into a semi-truck to get cleaned and frozen the same day we pick them.

 My grandparents and parents taught my brothers and me to have a strong work ethic, to work hard and be driven. Everyone in the family is expected to contribute and put in the work to keep the family farm going. We were taught that we are a team and each have our roles to play. My dad married into this family business in the 1990s and became our marsh manager and operator. My mom does the bookkeeping. I have two brothers. My middle brother is a football player for the Miami Dolphins. My youngest brother is in procurement at a paper mill in central Wisconsin. I have two daughters, Harlow and Twila, who are ten and eleven.. Harlow and Twila have been helping the family harvest cranberries since they were seven and eight years old, so they’re very well versed with getting into some waders and a paddle in hand during harvest time. They do such a good job that my dad and husband will take my kids’ help before me.

Farming is not for the faint of heart. It’s much more of a long-term game in terms of farming practice and being sustainable. About twenty years ago, my dad helped the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Horticulture Department create their hybrid cranberry program. The idea was to create a better cranberry vine that was more sustainable and had a higher yield. That way, it can grow twice as many cranberries on half the footprint. The upside to this is the crop would use less water, less pesticides and fertilizers. My parents created a smaller marsh on the family farm, and we planted new cranberry vines after they’ve been cross pollinated to reflect different genomes and characteristics. It sort of became our family research lab of monitoring the plants’ growth and progress to selecting vines that yielded favorable results. This process can come with success and failures and take up to ten years of testing and replanting just to produce one good, viable plant.

I feel like the distance between people and understanding where their food comes from has grown so far. I want to close that gap. I am a teacher by trade and currently teach a general education course at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I’m also currently pursuing my doctorate degree in sustainability at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I think that sustainable farming, combined with the use of technology, is the way we’re going to continue to feed the world. For cranberries, that includes creating hybrids that are bug and disease resistant and generate a high yield or production in a smaller footprint, which means less water use, less fertilizer use and less pesticide use. Doing this produces twice as many cranberries than a standard, heirloom-style cranberry would have. 

I want to help growers like myself, get better at what we do. Cranberry farmers are the best in the industry. Being stewards of this land, I feel a sense of obligation to take care of it and make it better for the next generation. 

I am entrusted with my family’s business for this very short period of time to make it better because they worked so hard on improving the business long before me. I have to continue to improve it before I can pass it on to my kids one day, if they chose to do this. I have a lot of pride in being a Wisconsin cranberry grower

If you are in the Midwest and you've consumed a cranberry, it definitely came from Wisconsin

Cranberries have grown on my family farm for five generations. There is so much blood, sweat, tears, and love poured over decades to bring the best cranberries for people to enjoy. 

For my family, cranberry farming started with my great great grandpa in the 1900s, then my great grandpa, then my mom, and now me. My mom and dad own and operate our family cranberry business, Dempze Cranberry, while my husband and I run King Cranberries, a sister company that specializes in growing and selling hybrid cranberry plants. Being a fifth-generation cranberry farmer, I have a responsibility to be sustainable in my practices in order to keep the land viable to feed the world for generations to come. I want to inform other cranberry growers about the benefits of precision farming, using advanced technology and science-based research to help them use the best farming practices that reduce water usage, pesticide usage, and fertilizer usage. Food production takes a ton of innovation and science more than people realize.

I wear a lot of different hats, whether it’s doing research in the field with my students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, or doing cross-pollination in the lab, leading cranberry tours on the farm, I am a teacher by trade and love to learn and educate others. Two summers ago, a few of my students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and I conducted bee research to identify the effects of having different bee pollinators on the cranberry farm. We discovered a robust native bee population is impactful on the size and crop yield. Bumblebees have such a critical role in our food chain, and it’s important to understand their role and impact on crops. In 2020, our cranberry farm was certified 100% sustainably grown because it provided a healthy ecosystem of native plants for bee pollinators to survive. I love bees since they play an important part in sustaining a healthy ecosystem.

In cranberry farming, you want to make sure you have a really great vine since it is a long-term investment. It takes ten plus years to make a cranberry hybrid. I know all the different characteristics in a cranberry–its tartness, sweetness, size, color–we cross pollinate plants in the lab by taking pollen from one parent plant and crossing them with another parent plant to get an offspring with those favorable characteristics. We have several cross pollination processes happening at the same time and will generally get 100 children plants. Out of that 100, we may be lucky to get one good plant. It’s a slow, laborious process of crossing, testing, and retesting to get the best hybrid.

When it comes time for harvest season in the fall, the cranberry fields are flooded, and the fruit floats to the top. It’s a spectacular sight to see. Cranberries have four hollow air pocket chambers, which is why they are buoyant and float. When I do tours, people are like, ‘Where’s the water? Don’t they grow in water?’ But actually, they are a perennial that grows on a bush. The flood harvest happens one day out of the year for about twelve hours. We flood the fields, knock them off the vine, harvest them, get them into a truck and into a processing plant, and then drain the fields dry. Occasionally, we will do a spring flood to do some pest mitigation, or, in the winter, we’ll flood the fields with a thin layer of ice to serve as a barrier against frost protection. Our number one issue that we face in cranberry farming–it’s not pests and it’s not the temperature. It is hail. Hail is like a bad swear word. It can knock out our crop in an entire 30 seconds and damage the cranberry buds, causing it to rot and fall off the plant.

Wisconsin has just an amazing community of other growers that are super passionate about getting better with the profession. It is one of the most robust groups of growers that have a deep passion for what they do. I feel super privileged and blessed to be able to do what I do. I know I have this super unique opportunity, being a fifth-generation cranberry grower, and I don’t want to waste it. I just want to maximize it as much as I can and keep the family business going and growing for years to come.

Rochelle’s story was produced by Jesse Yang. You can learn more about Dempze Cranberry and King Cranberries here.

Check out this video to get a sense of what cranberry farming looks like.

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