Aug 12, 2009
Michigan Takes a Serious Look at Cranberries

There are a number of explanations for why Wisconsin has 18,000 acres of cranberries and Michigan, a similar place 100 miles away across Lake Michigan, has only 250.

Potential growers tend to blame it on Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, which reputedly takes a dim view of projects that could potentially damage wetlands or pollute water. And there is no doubt DEQ enforces two state environmental laws that are tougher than those in most states. But both states enforce the same federal Clean Water Act, which has made cranberry bog expansion more difficult, everywhere, since it was passed in 1972.

So blame it on “grandfather.” Cranberry production has a long history in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin, and as laws protecting water and swamps came into being, they didn’t affect those existing uses.

Others say it’s climate. Michigan pursued a different superfruit, blueberries, which flourish on the same dismal, acidic, sandy, high-water-table soils that cranberries do. The state has about 18,000 acres of blueberries on land that could have gone into cranberries. Wisconsin is on the cold side of the big lake and finds blueberries a bit tender for its climate. So, blueberries are Michigan’s cranberries.

About a dozen years ago, half a dozen Michigan growers decided to develop cranberry bogs – and the state tried to help. But about that time, cranberry prices went sour and blueberry prices soared. That pretty well stopped further cranberry development.

But things have changed again. Blueberry production has soared in other places and prices have softened. Meanwhile, cranberry demand, and prices, are rising. Ocean Spray, the biggest processor, wants more cranberries, and at least one other processor – Graceland Fruit in Frankfort, Mich. – does as well. Moreover, in Michigan, with the automobile industry in the tank, agriculture is gaining new respect, especially from state government.

The go-to man

“Have them call me, or e-mail me, and I’ll help them,” says Erik Johnson, a soil scientist with the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA).

He’s now the go-to guy for anyone interested in getting into cranberry production. From his office near Manistee, he takes information from callers interested in becoming cranberry growers. Using state soil survey maps he himself worked 30 years to develop, he can determine right away whether the caller has the right kind of soil and a potentially good site.

His phone number is 231-357-4323. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Ever since the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO last December, when MDA made it known that Ocean Spray, other processors and investors were looking at Michigan for expansion, Johnson has taken “a couple dozen calls,” but only three sounded good enough for him to drive out and actually visit the sites. There’s a description of cranberry site requirements at Those thinking about growing cranberries should read that before picking up the phone.

Despite a lot of calls about sites with low potential, Johnson said Michigan has a lot of land that could be great for cranberries.

Much of the land with potential is “prior converted,” which means it used to be wetland and was drained for farming before the Clean Water Act and Michigan’s Wetland Protection Act were passed. If the ditches and drains were stopped up and the tile removed, it would revert to land with cranberry potential, Johnson said. The chances of getting permits to construct new cranberry bogs on such sites would be good, or may not even be needed.

Cranberries need sand, not clay, which excludes much of Michigan’s central and eastern regions. The lakeshore counties have potential – and isolated spots all over Michigan may fill the bill. Muck soils also have potential.

The incentives

Bob Craig, director of MDA’s Agriculture Development Division, was in a similar position 15 years ago when the state seemed ready for a push for more cranberries. Back then, a set of guidelines called GAAMPs (Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices) were developed for cranberry production, so potential producers would know what they had to do.

Those guidelines, and a memorandum of understanding with DEQ, led Craig to believe that Michigan could develop an “environmentally sound” cranberry industry that would give new opportunity to Michigan growers.

A sudden drop in cranberry prices, not regulations, stifled that, he said.

The cranberry market has rebounded and is very profitable right now, while the state is poised to offer incentives, called the Michigan Agriculture Advantages Plan, to offset potential barriers and encourage new cranberry development.

One incentive, of course, is the one-on-one guidance that comes from MDA’s Erik Johnson and other members of the cranberry site review team. Besides Johnson, the chair, the others are Kim Fish, assistant chief of the Land and Water Management Division of the DEQ, and Eric Hanson, small fruit specialist at Michigan State University.

In addition, DEQ and the treasury department have agreed to offer property tax abatements to growers who install environmental quality protection devices and water conservation systems for the control of surface and groundwater pollution as they design and construct their cranberry beds.

Facilities associated with cranberry farms that could be exempt, provided they are primarily for water pollution control, may include:

•Pesticide or fertilizer secondary containment structures.

•Certain land use changes, such as green belts and filter strips that are installed and maintained to prevent water pollution.

•Detention pond and related equipment designed to collect water for recycling, reuse it and not allow it to escape to a nearby waterway, provided its primary purpose is not related to production but water pollution control and water conservation.

•Other items installed or used primarily for water pollution control

“You need a lot of water for cranberry production,” Craig said. “We’re offering incentives for farmers to use closed loop systems to reuse and recycle the water. These systems are recommended in the GAAMPs. Once the water is captured, we want to keep it within the system, both for conservation reasons and to prevent pollution of other bodies of water.”

Farmers who enroll their land under the state’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act for 10 years or more get either state income tax credits or Michigan Business Tax credits. Farmers participating in the act are also exempt from special assessments for sewer, water, lights and non-farm drainage. More than 3 million acres of farmland is currently voluntarily enrolled.

“Cranberry production is a long-term agricultural investment, so these benefits are valuable,” Craig said.

In addition, the state has economic development tools available for food processing companies that either build a new plant or expand an existing facility in Michigan, including an Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zone designation.

The obstacles

Kim Fish at DEQ agrees that Michigan has two laws that can be obstacles to development for cranberries. One was passed in 1972 to protect inland lakes and streams, and the other passed in 1979 to protect wetlands.

Michigan regulates use of bogs, swamps and marshes that are larger than 5 acres in size or contiguous with a body of water. Use of these areas is subject to review and requires permits – but use is not necessarily prohibited.

Michigan’s DEQ enforces these state laws, and also enforces the federal Clean Water Act. Michigan and New Jersey are the only states with agencies to which this federal authority has been delegated.

Fish said this single authority makes Michigan’s process less complicated than Wisconsin’s, for example, where permits need to be coordinated among state agencies and the federal Army Corp of Engineers.

In Michigan, permits cost as little as $100 – usually about $500, but as much as $2,000 for extensive projects.

Even if development is to take place on land that does not require permits from DEQ, local construction or soil erosion permits could be required because of the extensive excavation and earth-moving involved in scraping off soil in beds and using it to construct ditches, dikes and reservoirs, she said.

So, while there are permits to get and processes to follow, Fish said, “we want to work with farmers. Cranberry production has a lot of potential in this state. We have the soils and climate. Cranberries are a healthy crop. We want an environmentally sustainable industry.”

The sites

Many of the phone calls Johnson fields are from people who have a swamp and wonder if that can be a cranberry bog. It’s better to look elsewhere, he said.

The GAAMPs developed in 1996 break potential cranberry sites into three categories based on their wetland classification and regulated status.

“A” sites are upland or prior wetland areas that were drained for agricultural use and are no longer defined as wetlands. Their development does not require a wetland permit. “A” sites may be suitable for cranberries if the high water table is restored.

“B” sites are areas that have been drained for agricultural use but still meet the state and federal definitions of a wetland. However, permits will be issued unless other resources would be adversely impacted by the proposed conversion.

“C” sites are natural, undisturbed wetlands. Wetland permits are required for construction of cranberry beds in these areas. “Permit requirements will be consistent with federal programs regarding construction of cranberry beds in natural, undisturbed wetlands, and will weigh the impacts and benefits of the proposed project,” according to the rules.

How water is to be acquired and discharged are prime concerns. Cranberry operations typically use surface water from lakes, streams, ditches or reservoirs. Access to water from lakes or streams may require permits, but farmers do have riparian rights. Construction of reservoirs of sufficient size may also require permits. Discharge of water to drainage ditches, streams or lakes may also require permits.

MDA also has GAAMPs for Irrigation Water Use, which are important for those who want to get into cranberry production. Cranberry production requires large amounts of water – to protect plants from frosts in the spring and fall, to irrigate or cool in the summer, to flood in the fall for harvest and to protect plants from winter with a covering of ice.

Annual water requirements are estimated to range from 5 to 9 acre-feet, according to the Web site. If beds and reservoirs are designed to recycle water, actual water use amounts may be lower. Recycling requires a soil substrata that minimizes deep seepage losses and topography that allows for water movement from bed to bed and from beds to reservoirs.

“Winter and harvest flooding requires enormous quantities of water in a short time,” according to the Web site. “As a general rule, at least 2 acre-feet of water should be on hand and immediately available for each acre of cranberry bed. Wells and small ditches or streams usually cannot meet required volumes.

“Cranberry leaves and buds can be killed by winter temperatures below 10˚ F, so operations in most areas of northern Michigan should follow Wisconsin winter protection practices (flooding to produce an ice blanket, ref-looding to add thickness to the ice, drawing water out from under the ice).”

Winters are more moderate in southern Michigan, so winter protection techniques similar to those used in Massachusetts or New Jersey might be suitable for that area.

“Our state has the opportunity to establish a strong cranberry industry that is both economically viable and environmentally sound,” said Don Koivisto, MDA’s director. “With the Michigan Agricultural Advantages Plan, I’m confident that we can accelerate more cranberry production and processing development here.”

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