Can we kiwi?

Can we kiwi? Searching for alternative crops to diversify Wisconsin cranberry marshes

Jed Colquhoun, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Cranberry production is unique in many ways but in a broad sense two aspects often rise to the top. First, cranberries grow in a very unique habitat where water is plentiful and soils acidic. The advantage of that of course is that most other agricultural production regions can’t just jump into cranberry production. The disadvantage is that the habitat requirements also limit what else can be grown on a marsh, which leads to the second unique aspect: most cranberry farms are “one-suited” when it comes to the crop portfolio.

A diversified crop portfolio on the farm has similar advantages to a diversified financial portfolio – one can weather the storm in one area by playing off the strengths in another. With that in mind, we’re embarking on research to explore what else might be grown in the unique habitats of the cranberry marsh. Most of the crops we’re starting out with have been dabbled with elsewhere and in a few cases even in cranberry country, but we’re particularly interested in how they grow and produce in marsh conditions.

We’re interested in a specific list of attributes, such as:
• How easy is it to source plant material and establish the crop? How long does it take for the perennials to reach full production?
• What are the inputs required to optimize production in Wisconsin, such as labor, pesticides and nutrients? How feasible is it to mechanize production, including harvest?
• What are the greatest hurdles to production, such as pest spectrum, winter hardiness and moisture management?
• How much does it cost to establish and maintain the crop?
• What do food companies and consumers think of it?
In current lingo, we’re taking a real “farm to fork” approach. How reasonable is it to grow these crops on a cranberry marsh and will anybody eat them? And it will be a practical approach – the research will be conducted on a cranberry marsh and we envision taste tests with foodies and consumers to gauge potential.

Examples of alternative crops that we’ll investigate include:
• Table grapes: newer cold hardy varieties expand potential here for this sweet fresh fruit. Appears to have good market potential for a local table grape.
• Hardy kiwi: grown on a trellised system. Eaten fresh as a smaller, sweeter fruit than tropical kiwi.
• Jostaberry: a shrub that often produces fruit the year after transplanting. Fruit is high in vitamin C and can be eaten fresh or processed in several ways.
• Gojiberry: a self-pollinating shrub that produces a sweet fruit that tastes somewhat like a combination of a cranberry and cherry. High in nutrients and antioxidants.
• Lingonberry: not necessarily a newcomer – UW researchers and growers have dabbled in this fruit closely related to the cranberry in the past, but most of that work was done when high cranberry demand trumped interest in diversifying production.

We’ll look forward to updating growers on our progress at the upcoming field days and winter meetings. Who knows where it might lead, but you can’t hit the ball if you don’t swing the bat!