John Stauner is president and owner of James Lake Farms, a 189-acre organic cranberry farm in Wisconsin (the top cranberry-producing state in the US). Located in the northern town of Three Lakes, Stauner’s operation comprises two organic cranberry marshes, which he expects will yield about 1.8 million pounds of organic cranberries this year. Stauner joined OPN for a conversation about his decision to farm organically, where he sells his fruit, the role of pollinators in cranberry production, and more.
Can you give us some background on you and your organic cranberry farm?
In my past professional life, I was VP of ag operations with Northland Cranberries. The James Lake marsh was one of the Northland properties. In 2006, my wife Nora and I had the opportunity to purchase the marsh, and we immediately began the conversion to organic production.
In 2016, we purchased the local Thunder Lake marsh and converted that property to organic production as well. Our first year of certification for Thunder Lake was 2018, and we are now a completely organic operation. We have 189 acres of planted cranberries and, to the best of my knowledge, are the largest organic cranberry grower in the state. We are a family-owned-and-run operation. Our oldest son, Ben Riker, is the manager at the James Lake marsh.
John Stauner, President and Owner, James Lake Farms, and his son Ben Riker, Manager, James Lake marsh
What was it that led you to leave Northland and start your own operation? And why did you decide to convert the property to organic?
Northland had been sold to a venture capital firm and was being broken up and sold in 2005 and 2006. The James Lake marsh was available, and marsh ownership was the next logical step for me. My interest and love has always been in growing the crop, so being an owner gave me that option.
Converting to organic was a business decision because we needed to find a value-added niche market, but it was also a decision driven by our desire to grow something that was good for people and good for the land on which it was grown.
In what form do you sell your cranberries (fresh, frozen, concentrate, etc.)?
We sell our fruit both to the fresh produce market as USDA #1 Fresh Organic Cranberries and as organic frozen to a variety of ingredient customers.
“Converting to organic was a business decision because we needed to find a value-added niche market, but it was also a decision driven by our desire to grow something that was good for people and good for the land on which it was grown.” -John Stauner
Who do you sell your cranberries to? And where can consumers find them?
The majority of our fresh fruit is sold through the Naturipe label, which is distributed nationally. On the frozen side, we are a farm partner with MegaFood, which manufactures and markets food-based nutritional supplements.
How competitive is the organic cranberry market?
Domestically, there is a limited supply. The largest supply of organic cranberries comes from Quebec, which has seen a significant growth of organic culture in the last 10 years. In general, the supply and demand for organic fresh cranberries has increased over this period, and prices have been stable.
Sarah Stauner, John Stauner's daughter
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of growing organic cranberries?
By definition under the National Organic Program (NOP), we can only use naturally based inputs. Synthetic materials are generally prohibited. Therefore, as examples, we use such things as composts for fertility and neem-oil-based products for pest control. I like to use the analogy that we are managing an ecosystem on the marsh in order to get as many cranberries as possible.
Weed control, as with many organic growers, is our biggest challenge. Our weed control program is a combination of mechanical clipping, cultural controls, and using organic inputs to burn back weeds. The program is adapted to each weed species.
Ben Riker, Manager of James Lake marsh, James Lake Farms
What role do pollinators play in cranberry production?
We rely on rented honeybees, purchased bumblebees, and our natural pollinators for the task of turning our cranberry blossoms into fruit. The natural pollinators play a large role in this regard, and we manage our entire property to maintain good pollinator habitat. For example, on our James Lake marsh, we have identified four species of native bumblebees, some of which are rare. Being organic, we can minimize the risk to native pollinators from our efforts to grow the crop and conserve this valuable resource.
“Weed control, as with many organic growers, is our biggest challenge. Our weed control program is a combination of mechanical clipping, cultural controls, and using organic inputs to burn back weeds. The program is adapted to each weed species.”-John Stauner
What makes Wisconsin a good place to grow organic cranberries?
Wisconsin has the ideal climate, soils, and available water to grow cranberries. They are native to the state. By growing a crop in its natural environment, we have an advantage in competing against pests.
Cranberry harvesting at Thunder Lake, James Lake Farms
You’re in the process of converting some cranberry vines from old vines to higher-producing hybrid vines. Can you tell us about that process?
We have some older vines that are scheduled for renovation with newer hybrid varieties developed recently in the industry. We are looking at these varieties to see how they respond to our organic growing methods. Cranberries are propagated by taking existing vine stock and directly planting into a prepared cranberry bed. It takes three years for the vines to form a full canopy and begin producing.
“We rely on rented honeybees, purchased bumblebees, and our natural pollinators for the task of turning our cranberry blossoms into fruit. The natural pollinators play a large role in this regard, and we manage our entire property to maintain good pollinator habitat.” -John Stauner
Have any of the hybrid vines you’ve planted started bearing fruit?
Yes. Initial results are promising.
Cranberries at Thunder Lake, James Lake Farms
How is this year’s cranberry crop looking?
The crop this year is looking good. The summer growing season has been beneficial with plenty of warm temperatures and good pollination weather.
You’ve done some work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Which of their programs have you participated in, and what did those involve in terms of changes to your operation?
We have participated in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to upgrade our irrigation systems. This improved the efficiency of our irrigation and has conserved water. Additionally, through EQIP, we have planted pollinator species on our support lands to provide habitat for natural pollinators.
Is there anything else about organic cranberry farming that you’d like to share?
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