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For the past three years residents of Aitkin County have watched a new crop go in as an East Coast company tried to establish cranberry bogs. Cranberries take deep pockets and sturdy patience, but now - after three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars - the Aitkin County bogs are ready to produce.
THIS CRANBERRY FIELD USED TO BE A RICE PADDY, and still looks like one: a diked rectangle of four acres on a tabletop landscape. It's planting day and 90 degrees. A yellow tractor's dumping bales of wet cranberry vines onto dry sand while workers, in swimsuits or overalls, rake them out thin. Cranberries are a novel crop in this part of the world - like the vines, the crew's a little green.
Kim Cramer: They're way too thick you guys, you gotta thin them out a lot more than that.
Kim Cramer refers most cranberry questions to her husband, Duane, who's driving the tractor, but after three years she knows her vines. Coming along behind the crew is a disc implement that will give the wet plants a proper start.
Cramer: Those blades now are three inches apart, and they're pushing the vines in about two inches. That big roller right behind the blades, that's taking the sand and covering up the holes. That's all there is to it.
All this might seem simple - small plots, hand labor - but it's actually a costly and ongoing experiment. The farm is owned by AD Makepeace, a Massachusetts-based company, and it's the best-established of several operations trying to expand the cranberry industry into Minnesota. Makepeace has spent $30,000 an acre developing these bogs - hauling in peat and sand for the vines to grow in, establishing reservoirs, and installing pumps and culverts to manipulate water from the Mississippi. The vines alone cost $4,000 a ton soaking wet, and every acre takes a ton and a half. Up on the tractor, manager Duane Cramer says he'll be relieved if the bogs can just produce that long-awaited first crop this fall.
Cramer: They've been a little slow taking off. We've got another 30 acres ready to go next spring, so hopefully it goes well, it'll be a boost for the economics, as you can see here, we're working on a little two-acre piece and we've probably got 20 people running around.
The area needs the jobs - Aitkin County is persistently at or near bottom of the per-capita income scale - but there's a lot of caution about cranberries. For one thing, they've never been grown commercially this far north. Also, these bogs formerly produced wild rice - a specialty crop that raised all kinds of expectations in the 70s, only to have the market wilt. Could the same thing happen to cranberries?
Kevin Edberg: Anybody who's going to put that kind of money into developing a cranberry bog had better have a very, very, very sound idea where they'll be selling their product - or they're nuts.
Kevin Edberg is assistant marketing director for the state Agriculture Department. Having watched the hype and crash of many a specialty crop, he believes cranberries are stable -wild rice, for example, never claimed much cooler space at gas stations. He says the question isn't the durability of the market, but whether a company has access to it. Most of the cranberries grown in this country are bought and sold by the Ocean Spray cooperative. Growers who belong to Ocean Spray have huge advantages over those who don't.
Edberg: You have a wider number of consumers using your product on a daily basis. You have more than one or two major buyers of the product, you are a smaller player in a bigger market and that reduces risk.
The AD Makepeace company does belong to Ocean Spray; however, its risk is still large. While the company tries to establish itself in Minnesota, competitors in Wisconsin - already the biggest cranberry-producing state - are expanding rapidly. In the Aitkin County bogs, crewman Richard Cook - a former dairy farmer - says the product might be different, but the situation feels familiar
Cook: Everbody's gettin into it - it's just like the dairy business. Everybody got into that and what'd they do to it? It soured up. They got greedy, wanted a bigger price, pretty soon it went to hell. That's what's gonna happen to this, too.
AD Makepeace hopes to ship its first Minnesota cranberries this fall.