15 Minutes with cranberry farmer Amber Bristow
Some of Amber Bristow’s earliest memories on her family’s cranberry marsh in Warrens, Wisconsin, are the spring and summer midnight rides with her father. She’d wake up, watch cable TV, and then tag along in the truck with a cooler of snacks supplied to fuel their task of checking for frost on the vines.
“Growing up, I was Dad’s little shadow. He always included me, but because I have an older brother, Dad didn’t expect I’d be the one to come back home to farm,” Bristow says.
She took on the least glamorous jobs throughout middle school and high school like picking up sticks and pulling weeds. And in college, Bristow earned a sports management degree that led her to work with baseball teams in Wisconsin and Iowa – a far cry from her farming background.
Yet, every monthly visit she made back home brought her closer to realizing she was truly meant to be there.
“Eventually I talked to my parents about coming back to the marsh and really only had to convince my mom,” Bristow says. “That was four years ago, and I’ve been under my dad’s wing ever since learning the ropes and will someday take over for him.”
SF: What is the history of your farm?
AB: Our marsh started as 11 acres in 1918 and has since grown to 230. We run a small operation with my dad, my husband, one of my cousins, and two other full-timers. Although I don’t have an exact date, we became part of the Ocean Spray farmer-owned cooperative shortly after our founding.
SF: For those unfamiliar with the crop, how do cranberries grow in a marsh?
AB: We have sandy, acidic soil and the cranberry vines grow in beds dug into the ground. Cranberries are perennial, so to protect the vines in winter, we flood the beds with about 24 inches of pond water and when a layer of ice forms, we pull the extra water off back into the ponds. We do this process a couple of times during the winter months until there is about 10 to 12 inches of ice and then spread sand across the beds. In spring when the ice melts, the sand falls through and pushes the vines down encouraging new growth. This process promotes better bud development in the spring and gets rid of any insects that may remain from the summer.
SF: What is a misconception in cranberry farming?
AB: The biggest misconception is that people think we work in water all of the time because the image of cranberries they’re most familiar with is flooding during harvest. We do flood in the fall so the cranberries can be moved around easier. But most people are blown away to learn we actually farm in marshes year-round. The berries don’t magically show up in the fall. Because cranberries are a perennial fruit, some of the vines we have are over 60 years old. They keep reproducing and we don’t have to replant or rotate crops out. Cranberries love the sandy, acidic soil, and we can’t really grow any other crop in these conditions. They are one of the few native fruits to North America.
I also want others to see cranberries as more than a seasonal food. Find the fresh fruit in stores and freeze them so you can use them throughout the year, drink cranberry juice, and snack on dried cranberries. There is a wealth of nutritional value and antioxidants in cranberries; I think they should be part of everybody’s everyday diet. Many great things come from this tiny fruit and that’s what makes me proud to grow this crop.
SF: How did you start your Instagram @cranberrychats?
AB: About three years ago, I realized I wanted to share more of my life on the marsh and address the misconceptions I kept hearing. I started posting on my personal Instagram page but felt like I wasn’t reaching the right audience. Then the Women in Ag account, which has thousands of followers, reached out to feature me. I was blown away and didn’t even know there was a side of Instagram focused on badass women in all aspects of agriculture. Many people reached out to me after I was featured commenting on what they learned and telling me to keep it up. I’ve always viewed social media as a scary place that can provoke criticism but the more I saw other women in ag use Instagram, the more I felt like I could do it and bring representation of the cranberry industry to social media, which was lacking.
SF: And how did your podcast with Becca Hilby, Forward Farming, begin?
AB: One of the people I met through social media was Becca Hilby, a dairy farmer in southern Wisconsin. We have similar personalities, humor, and we’re both a little impulsive. So when I reached out to ask if she would start a podcast with me, she said yes. Forward Farming is our podcast – named after the Wisconsin state motto. Milk is the official beverage of Wisconsin and cranberries are the official state fruit, so it all ties together.
SF: What topics do you cover in Forward Farming?
AB: We talk about being female farmers, Wisconsin agriculture, and how we move the industry forward. In each week’s episode, we start by sharing our highs and lows of the week because often social media only shows the good things but there are a lot of negatives that we tend to avoid. We’ve opened up our platform and make it OK to discuss our struggles because everyone has them; we may as well talk about it and not feel secluded. You’d also think that by growing up in Wisconsin, we would know more about each other’s industries, but Becca and I have learned a lot from each other.
SF: What is one of your favorite episodes?
AB: Becca and I are both into hunting and follow Alex Templeton on social media, a female rancher in Missouri who is also a bow hunter. She is sponsored by Matthews hunting brand and helped design the women’s line of gear for SITKA. She agreed to be on our podcast and we learned so much about ranching. Since we are mostly dairy in Wisconsin, it was interesting to hear her side of agriculture and realize that in many ways, we’re still the same.
SF: March is Women's History Month. What does it mean to you to be challenging the norms in farming?
AB: Because there are many family-run cranberry marshes, women have always been involved, but it seems recently a lot more women are stepping up and running the show. I grew up watching some of these women and never felt like I couldn’t do it, too. I looked up to my grandma as I watched her work with my dad and grandpa. When watching for frost, she would be up until midnight or 1:00 a.m. so that my grandpa could get some sleep at night. There are many powerful women in our industry who I admire even now, and see them filling leadership roles makes me confident I can do the same. With the women in ag community on Instagram, it’s empowering to see that it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or man – if there is a job to be done, a calf to be pulled, you can do it.
SF: Whom do you admire in agriculture?
AB: I admire the heck out of my dad. He married into cranberry farming and had to overcome a huge learning curve to work with this unique crop. There isn’t a manual on how to grow cranberries; it comes from experience and attention to detail. I feel fortunate that I’m able to learn from him. I try to soak up as much as I can because I know he’s willing to take a few steps back now. He’s always been my role model on and off the marsh.
SF: What are you looking forward to this year?
AB: There are a lot of big changes coming this year. I’m pregnant with my first baby due at the end of August, just in time for harvest. Everyone is excited and eagerly awaiting little cran-baby. This year is all about growth and generational change for me and my entire family.