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/ Business of the Month / Bartling’s Manitowish Cranberry Company
Business of the Month: September 2021
13141 Man Cran Lane
Manitowish Waters, WI 54545
Phone: (715) 543-8466
Mission: to grow abundant quality crops while sustaining our land
and water resources and our family farm heritage.
We are pleased to have had an opportunity last week to meet with Steve Bartling, co-owner of Bartling’s Manitowish Cranberry Company, to congratulate the company on their Business of the Month award and learn more about this Vilas County treasure. Here is a synopsis of that interview.
Tell us about the history of Bartling’s Manitowish Cranberry Company.
The company was started by my great-grandfather in 1946. That was when there was a group of farmers who moved up here from Central Wisconsin to combine their resources to start developing some land for cranberries. That was a movement out of WWII when the homesteaders and hobby farmers started to do things more for profit, such as developing specialty crops, like cranberries.
My brother, David, and I recently took over ownership from my dad and his brother who had the company since the early 1980s.
What is your business model for growth?
Our long-term goal is to continue the succession of our family business. That’s really important in cranberries because a lot of the investments you make today you might not see a return on investment in your lifetime.
When engaging with the land and resources you’re the caretaker, the caregiver for this era. We want to make this a very long-term agricultural business for our family. To make sure that when we’re engaging with the land, and the community, that we’re operating to the best of our guiding principles.
The business has grown exponentially in different forms and in different ways. As an example, we don’t have more land to plant more cranberries because there isn’t the right land or water resources nearby. Any more cranberries on this resource would be too taxing on our resources over the long term. We’re growing by adding new varieties, where we can get more yield off the current land. We have our own cleaning and processing facility on site, a very unique thing in our industry. This gives us the ability to scale economically.
How many people do you employ?
We have three employees not including my brother and myself, and up to 20 employees during harvest season which is mid-September to late October.
How has your cranberry company grown?
Our growth model isn’t 100% driven toward financial growth. Rather, we look at how are we growing our family, our ability to get the most revenue off of the land that we have, and are we engaging with our community to help it grow.
It’s a different model in agriculture than straight line business growth, especially when you have no control over what you’re going to get. Mother Nature does that. At the end of the day, it’s what Mother Nature gives you and your return is based on commodity and consumer demand.
That’s why you focus on what is success vs. what is growth. That’s having a lifestyle, a family, good environmental resources and stewardship, being active in our communities including local Manitowish Waters but also the Wisconsin cranberry industry as well as the national industry, and being a leader for the success of everyone.
How is your family engaged in the community?
We all volunteer in different community programs. My dad is on the board of the WinMan bike trails, my mom is active on the Manitowish Waters historical society, and we also own Alderwood Resort which dates back to the 1930s. I’m the president of the Wisconsin Growers Association, and I’m involved on the supply chain board at Ocean Spray. Our farm is an owner/ grower of Ocean Spray. All of our products go to Ocean Spray, so when you’re buying a cranberry product there’s a good chance that it came from us, be it craisins, sweet and dried cranberries or shelf juices.
What does it mean to be part of national company like Ocean Spray?
Ocean Spray is probably the largest family in the world. We’re 700 farmers strong and we’re all very connected. That’s one of the hidden gems of the cranberry industry. It’s a very niche, connected community - it’s powerful. We’re not just a farmer. We’re a big community that has active control over the direction of our industry. It’s one of the very few industries that can have that. That’s very important but it’s also very expanding because it’s not like we’re just a little farmer in the Northwoods. We’re engaging with farmer groups from all around the country, from Massachusetts to Canada. All of these families are just like ours who go way back for generations working on sustainable agriculture.
How many cranberry companies are there in Wisconsin?
There are 250 in the state and a dozen in the Northwoods. Most of the cranberries are produced in the Central West part of Wisconsin. We’re unique to produce cranberries in the Northwoods, and yet these are all commercial-scale cranberry companies. There are six cranberry companies right here in Manitowish Waters.
Why does your cranberry company standout?
We are slightly larger, and very innovative and aggressive. We are innovating toward the next wave of cranberry agriculture. There’s a lot of people doing really great things. We try new harvest equipment to growing practices to integrated pest management structures to nutrient management systems.
How many acres of cranberries do you grow?
We have 180 acres of producing cranberries. It’s a 1-5 ratio of support land and water resources. For every acre of producing cranberries, we need an acre of water resource and support land. The water comes from different lakes and reservoirs. That’s why this is such a great area for growing cranberries, we’ve got great land and great water here.
While clearly there is cranberry juice and other products, people think of cranberries mainly at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Is that mindset changing?
The story of the cranberry really is a seasonal product. The biggest evolution that I see coming for consumers is how it impacts their personal and physical health. There are a lot of great benefits that are secretly hidden in the cranberry. There is a reason they are naturally not sweet, and that they taste kind of tart. That’s because they have a lot of really powerful acids and antioxidants. As consumers continue to shift to more of a health and wellness mindset cranberries will play a big part of that. We have a really healthy product in its natural state.
Who will follow you and David in leading the business?
David and Becca have a 16-month-old daughter, Lucy, and right now she’s the runner-up. The mindset is to give the future family leaders all the opportunity and resources to have a great life here in the Northwoods.
What would you say to someone interested in starting a business in cranberry production?
I would encourage anyone to engage in agriculture in some form, be it the farmer or business person because it’s a really different way of life. It’s a lifestyle much more than a job or a career. Every day is very different. The hard work, it doesn’t last long, especially in crop agriculture. It’s a constant evolution, but if you add the fact that you get to be outside and engaging with nature, it’s great. I really do encourage people to look to agriculture for a career or passion.
If you have a Vilas County business that you would like to nominate for a Business of the Month Award, please contact Kathy Schmitz, VCEDC Executive Director, at [email protected]
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