Move over, cheese: Wisconsin's grand cranberry festival is here

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Cranberry harvest season begins this month, and that's big news for Wisconsin farmers.

Although cheese and dairy farming are the big cash cows for the Badger state, it's also the nation's largest producer of cranberries, with a record 6 million barrels produced in 2013, representing nearly 67 percent of the nation's total yield, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Massachusetts – a state more commonly associated with the tart, red fruits – only produced 1.8 million barrels by comparison, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The state expects to harvest nearly 5.4 million barrels of cranberries this fall, the Star Tribune reports – a hefty amount, but not quite as much as last year's record-breaking yield.

Farmers say their cranberry farms, or "bogs," are doing well this year thanks in part to the particularly harsh winter.

"The winter was long, but the berries stayed dormant under the ice for a good time, and we didn't have things like a January flaw to disrupt dormant periods," one cranberry farmer told WSAW.

This weekend, more than 100,000 farmers and cranberry enthusiasts will descend upon the tiny town of Warrens, Wisconsin, home to only around 400 residents, to take part in the world's largest cranberry festival.

Harvesting the cranberries

According to Ocean Spray's website, most berries are picked using a process known as "wet-harvesting."

First, farmers flood their bogs so the air-filled berries float to the surface while the vines stay anchored to the ground, creating the drowned marsh most people associate with cranberry farming. Then, growers drive a giant water reel, nicknamed an "egg beater," through the swamp to shake berries off the submerged vines before collecting them for distribution. Wet-harvested berries are generally sold frozen, dried or processed into juice and other products.

Cranberries sold as fresh fruit are "dry-harvested," without flooding the bog, in order to prevent bruising, according to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association. Only around 5 percent of Wisconsin cranberries are dry-harvested, the Star Tribune says.

Wisconsin-grown cranberries are sold across the country through a variety of retailers including Ocean Spray, Wal-Mart, and even the dried cranberries served on oatmeal at McDonald's, WXOW reports.

Cranberry tourism destinations

The Warrens Cranberry Festival is only a 2.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities, with beautiful views of deep, red cranberry bogs along the way, according to the Star Tribune. Midwest Living recommends a stop in the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center, where visitors can learn about the history and process of the state's cranberry industry.

The festival itself will feature a parade, a cranberry recipe contest and weekend-long fair with thousands of art booths and food stands, according to Travel Wisconsin.

Bog tours are highly recommended as well, especially in the fall when you can watch farmers harvest the flooded fields. Visitors can drive along a 50-mile stretch of road through the heart of cranberry country known as "The Cranberry Highway." Most farms along the route are available for tours, but Travel Wisconsin says it's perfectly enjoyable to drive through and enjoy views of the crimson berries bobbing in the bogs.

Recipe roundup

The start of cranberry season in Wisconsin might have you wanting to try out a new recipe or two. The Star Tribune has recipes for a cranberry pear crisp, cranberry pecan swirls, and a cranberry pork tenderloins with an easy cranberry relish.

The Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association has a whole host of recipes, from appetizers to desserts.

Midwest Living has a list of 30 recipes with pictures, including cranberry chocolate cheesecake and cranberry apple sweet potatoes.

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