When Ray Habelman’s great-grandfather bought his first marsh in Tunnel City in 1907, fresh cranberries represented the whole market. There was no cranberry juice, jellied cranberry sauce or any of the other processed products that today account for more than 95 percent of cranberry sales.
Despite that ever-widening marketplace, Habelman Brothers has not wavered from its four-generation commitment to producing high-quality, fresh cranberries. In fact, the Wisconsin company is the world’s largest fresh cranberry grower and packer. It’s a proud family legacy.
“It’s very unusual to focus on producing fresh cranberries, because it’s more expensive and time consuming to do,” says Habelman, current CEO. “But our family has always believed in ensuring that customers not only can get fresh cranberries, but can get the best quality.”
The family includes the first three generations: Ray’s great-grandfather, Ed, who had seven children; his grandfather, Ray Sr., along with four brothers; and Ray’s father, Ray Jr., who lives in the original farm home and continues to be involved in the company. Other family members have a hand in the operations as well, and Ray III hopes that his four children – Riley, 14, Carter, 12, Brody, 8, and Mila, 4 – will be future cranberry growers, too.
By the Barrel
As the family has grown, so has the business. While that first 13-acre marsh continues to produce cranberries, additional property in Millston, Tomah and Tunnel City has expanded the Habelman Brothers’ operation to nearly 700 acres.
That translates into a lot of fresh cranberries. Habelman says the company produces between 100,000 and 130,000 barrels of the fruit each year. With every barrel weighing 100 pounds, that means up to 13 million pounds of cranberries are harvested each fall. Of that, up to 9 million pounds are packaged on-site for the fresh market. They end up in the produce aisles at small grocery stores and large chains across the country. The rest, which may be bruised or off color, make their way to processing plants.
Habelman Brothers’ 700 acres is part of the 20,700 acres of cranberry vines in production in the state. Tom Lochner, executive director of Wisconsin Cranberry Growers, says many of the growers are multigenerational businesses.
“Wisconsin has a proud history and a strong base of growers. Nearly 60 percent of the nation’s cranberry crop is grown in our state. It’s estimated that the industry has a $1 billion per year impact on the state economy.”
Commitment to Conservation
What makes Wisconsin a prime place for the cranberry industry? Lochner says the perennial plant has grown in the wild in central and northern Wisconsin since well before European settlement. Commercial growing began in the 1800s.
The state’s climate, acidic soil and abundance of fresh, clean water create an ideal environment. So, too, does the Wisconsin growers’ commitment to sustainability.
“Wisconsin is the best place in the world to grow cranberries,” Lochner says. “Our growers have always known that. In fact, they were conservationists before it was fashionable.”
He adds, “Marshes provide homes for just about every type of wildlife that one can imagine. It’s their habitat, and our growers take pride in ensuring that the land and wildlife are protected in Wisconsin.”
What’s another important reason for the state’s success in cranberry production? That strong Wisconsin work ethic and multigenerational commitment to the industry.
“I realize the generations before me worked hard to build this business,” Habelman says. “They were committed to protecting the land and to delivering the best product. There is a lot of pride that goes into duplicating that effort.”