BY JORDAN TRAVIS
Capital News Service
LANSING – Get out the hip waders: Michigan may be growing more cranberries in the future.
Five thousand acres’ worth of new bogs, to be exact.
The Senate is considering a wetlands management bill that calls for the Department of Environmental Quality to identify at least 2,500 acres of land suitable for growing cranberries. The DEQ would consult with the Department of Agriculture to find the land.
Once 2,000 of those acres are developed, the two departments would then look for an additional 2,500 acres. That would mean an increase of Michigan’s current cranberry acreage — nearly 250 acres — by more than twentyfold.
Most cranberry farms are in the Upper Peninsula, near Cheboygan and in Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties, according to Michigan State University Extension.
The new bogs would be located in upland areas and on land that has been drained for farming. No undisturbed wetlands or sensitive natural areas would be included.
The sponsor, Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, said the bill would give security to existing farms looking to expand, as well as encourage new growers to move into the state.
“Farmers want certainty,” she said. “They want to know if they’re still going to be able to make money two years down the road.”
The bill would formalize a 2008 agreement between the DEQ and Agriculture to expand cranberry farming.
Matt Smego, legislative council for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said that the bill would help those who are looking to grow cranberries. The former agreement, he said, dealt with potential locations on a site-by-site basis.
Currently, growers are charged $1,000 for a pre-application site visit by the Department of Environmental Quality. This bill would eliminate that fee, he said.
Michigan’s recognition that cranberries depend on wetland would be changed to water-dependent, the current federal standard.
“This bill would assist individuals who want to grow cranberries and create development zones” with minimal environmental damage, Smego said.
Mark Longstroth, the Southwest Michigan District Extension fruit educator and a cranberry expert, said the proposal surprised him.
“Well, I guess it’s not that big of a surprise,” he said in hindsight.
The interest in growing more cranberries is there, said Longstroth, who is setting up a cranberry school in South Haven. Extension also has a team of experts who can determine whether a site is suitable for growing the berries.
Longstroth has seen similar plans materialize — and fail.
The Rural Development Council of Michigan’s fall 1998 newsletter told of a plan to turn 1,850 acres of Muskegon County land into a cranberry farm. Feasibility studies showed that the project would be profitable in the long term.
However, Longstroth said, interest evaporated when prices for cranberries fell sharply.
But Birkholz said a lot has changed since then, and many companies have expressed interest in growing cranberries in Michigan.
Ocean Spray is one of them, said Longstroth. The cooperative, headquartered in Massachusetts, expressed interest at last year’s Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo.
States with the largest cranberry production are Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Michigan has a long history of growing the berry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Lack of technology and the draining of land had nearly eliminated the crop by the 1930s. Instead, blueberries were grown in the same soil.
The USDA says that demand for the cranberry is likely to increase for the foreseeable future.