The dominant color of a cranberry bed in midsummer is pale pink. The recumbent vines are spangled with tiny flowers, each with four petal-like lobes, tinged with pink, that arch back from a protruding stamen. By September, about a third of these flowers will produce the familiar bright red berries.

The beds are sunken rectangles, each about three acres in extent, and each demarcated by raised earthen dikes whose flat tops are broad enough to serve as one-lane roads. You can see rows and rows of these beds, laid out as regular as tile on a floor, in the country between Tomah, Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Rapids. This area, roughly 75-100 miles north of Madison in Juneau and Wood counties, was once the bottom of Glacial Lake Wisconsin, and the land is flat enough to make an Illinoisan feel right at home.

Much of the land is also wet, with the sort of peaty, acidic soils that probably supported wild cranberries since the lake drained away around 10,000 years ago. Native Americans gathered the berries for hundreds of years, and when Europeans moved in around the middle of the last century, they did the same. As their knowledge of the wild cranberry vines grew, they began to take cuttings from the most productive vines in the bogs and plant them in beds of their own making. By the 1870s, cranberries, still genetically identical to the wild vines of the bogs, had become a domestic crop.

Wisconsin, which has about 10,000 acres of beds under cultivation, recently passed Massachusetts as the nation’s top producer of cranberries, with a total annual production of almost 150 million pounds–a yield that, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers’ Association, contributes $250 million a year to the state’s economy. The bed of Glacial Lake Wisconsin accounts for more than half of that production. Another 25 percent is grown in the north between Tomahawk and Rhinelander, and the rest comes from locations scattered through the central and northern parts of the state.

About 150 growers produce all those berries. Many of them inherited their cranberry marshes from parents and grandparents, and many mailboxes on the roads around Babcock, where Ocean Spray has a receiving station for harvested berries, carry names that have been associated with cranberry growing since the 1870s. The houses behind those mailboxes look like they would fit right into any upper-middle-class suburb around Chicago. Willie Nelson is not likely to do a benefit for cranberry growers anytime soon. I met one grower who left the computer business to raise cranberries after his wife inherited the family marsh.

A lot of this prosperity is due to the efforts of Ocean Spray, which is a nationwide cooperative owned by growers in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon. Thirty years ago, just before Thanksgiving, pesticide residues were discovered on newly harvested cranberries, causing a cranberry scare that was catastrophic for growers. Nobody wanted poisonous cranberry sauce with their turkey and dressing, so most of the year’s crop rotted unsold. The growers realized that producing a food that most people eat only once a year made them very vulnerable, so they set their co-op the task of finding new uses for cranberries. The search led to cranberry juice, cranapple cocktails, and a host of other well-marketed concoctions that have kept cranberry prices high and acreage expanding. Over the past decade Wisconsin growers have added about a thousand acres to their beds.

And therein lies a problem.

For more than ten years now Wisconsin cranberry growers have been battling environmentalists over the issue of wetlands protection. The environmentalists, represented chiefly by the State Department of Natural Resources, want to tell cranberry growers where they can put their beds. The growers, naturally, would rather they didn’t. The battle, which has proceeded at varying levels of intensity, seems to have subsided, for now. The DNR recently got the new regulations it wanted, and the growers are content to wait and see. If the new rules are administered in a way the growers are willing to live with, peace will prevail. If the DNR administers the rules in a way the growers find too restrictive, the fight will start all over. The current governor, Tommy Thompson, is from cranberry country, and the growers were early backers of his campaign. Thompson has also appointed a grower to the board that oversees the DNR, so the cranberry producers are not without resources.

We live in a time when the free market is more widely and fervently worshipped than God, a time when the President’s Competitiveness Council can simply overrule any law that threatens to discomfit a campaign contributor, and we have a president who would probably put eight-year-olds to work in the coal mines if he thought it would help him gain the support of his party’s right wing. In a time like this we could tell the story of this conflict as an example of high-handed bureaucrats driving good American businessmen to bankruptcy with arbitrary rules.

Or we could tell it as a triumph of the pure-hearted champions of the environment: the tree-huggers win one from the forces of greed.

But we could also tell it as an example of people trying to work out new ways of doing things in a time when we know the old ways won’t work anymore. We could see the conflict as part of what happens when you let people express their opinions, and its tentative resolution as a sign of hope that democracy can actually deal with our problems.

You can trace the origins of the fight back to two sources: one botanical and one legal. The botanical side begins with the cranberry plant itself: Vaccinium macrocarpon. To place it in the plant kingdom, it is a flowering plant of the family Ericaceae, commonly known as the heath family. Heaths are often plants of difficult environments, growing on mountain slopes or in the cold, acid waters of northern bogs. Many, even those living in quite cold climates, are evergreens, and their leaves are often leathery, with thick cuticles that prevent desiccation. Many have glorious flowers. Azaleas are heaths, and so are the rhododendrons of the southern Appalachians.

In the bogs of Wisconsin’s North Woods, plants like Labrador tea, pale laurel, leatherleaf, and cranberry, all low straggling evergreen shrubs of the heath family, are the dominant species. Their flowers are tiny but as beautiful as any azalea. The genus Vaccinium includes blueberries and the lingonberries of Swedish cuisine as well as cranberries.

Since wild cranberries are a wetland species, it was logical to grow the domestic plants in wetlands too. And the logic gets even stronger when you consider the first principle of cranberry cultivation: it takes an enormous amount of water to manage a productive bed.

Starting with those midsummer beds spangled with pink flowers, the annual water regime of a cranberry bed looks like this:

In summer, which is usually the driest time of year, the water level should be slightly below the surface of the bed. The soil should be moist enough to allow the cranberries’ simple roots–they have no root hairs–to reach water, but not wet enough to induce root rot. If rain doesn’t fall often enough, sprinklers are used to irrigate the vines. The sprinklers provide frost protection too. In these northerly regions, especially in low-lying areas where cold air sinks to the ground at night, summer frosts are a fairly common occurrence. Growers used to flood their beds to protect them, but now they just sprinkle. The drops of water clinging to the leaves absorb enough heat as they evaporate to keep the leaves above the freezing point.

When the berries ripen in September, the growers flood the beds, creating a series of shallow, rectangular ponds. Cranberries float, and some will rise to the surface as soon as the flood is put on the bed. To loosen the rest from the vines, a small, lightweight tractor, its engine mounted aft, its wide rubber tires designed to cushion its impact on the vines, is driven slowly up and back through the pond. A rotating cylinder mounted crossways at the front of the tractor gently beats the vines and dislodges the remaining berries. Workers in high rubber waders surround the berries with floating, flexible booms that gather the fruit at one end of the bed. The floating berries form a crimson film that dots the landscape with color. On sunny days in September, cranberry beds are blue water spangled with islands of fiery red, the whole framed in the green of the grassy dikes.

Once the berries are corralled, they are shoveled onto a conveyor, which lifts them into a machine that removes stems, leaves, and other detritus, leaving the clean berries ready for transport.

By October, the harvest is done. The beds are drained. They stay dry until December, when growers flood them again to submerge the plants completely. The water freezes and protects the plants through the winter.

In spring, when the winter flood thaws, the growers drain their beds and begin the summer regime of sprinkling periodically for irrigation and frost protection.

The heavy water use involved in growing cranberries dictates the pattern of land use. Wisconsin’s 10,000 acres of cranberry beds are backed by 110,000 acres of supporting lands. Much of that 110,000 acres is devoted to reservoirs where water can be stored until needed. The rest is in uplands that drain into the reservoirs, ditches that transport the water, dikes that hold it in, and water-control mechanisms that allow growers to turn the supply off and on as needed. (By the way, in Massachusetts, where commercial cranberry growing began, a grower’s holdings are called a bog. In Wisconsin, the berries grow in beds and the whole complex of reservoir, beds, ditches, etc is called a cranberry marsh.)

Given the almost constant need for large amounts of water, the easiest and cheapest place to build a cranberry bed is in a wetland. You create a reservoir in the highest part of the wetland and put your beds downstream. You build dikes to deepen the water enough to ensure a reliable supply even in a dry August. You build ditches to carry the water from bed to bed and put in water-control devices to direct and measure the flow. And from that point on, gravity takes over.

Around Babcock, there are groups of as many as 12 growers strung out downstream from a single water source. Each has his own beds and his own reservoir. In this flat country, the difference between upstream and down may be only a few feet, but it is enough to keep water flowing from one grower’s beds to the next grower’s reservoir, and so on down the line.

The legal side of the cranberry conflict is rooted in the Clean Water Act of 1970. Before then, through the first century of cranberry farming in Wisconsin, growers were able to convert natural wetlands to cranberry cultivation with little or no regulation from either the state or the federal government. Indeed, they had special status among Wisconsin farmers: a law passed in the early days of cranberry cultivation said growers could not be denied the use of surface waters. In very dry years, like 1988, cranberry growers continue to get the water they need for irrigation and frost protection while others–potato farmers, for example–may be put on short rations.

The growers justify their special status by pointing out that a potato grower without water may miss one harvest, but a cranberry grower without water could be out of business for as long as five years. A cranberry bed is like an orchard or vineyard that hugs the ground instead of growing upward. Its crop is a long-lived, woody perennial like an apple tree, and like apple trees cranberry vines take time to mature and produce fruit.

The courts, over the years, ruled that the cranberry growers’ special status allowed them to do pretty much what they wanted with their wetlands. But the Clean Water Act marked the end of that era. Section 404 of the act gave the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over wetlands. Anyone who wanted to dredge or fill a marsh, swamp, bog, or alder thicket had to get a permit from the Corps.

The cranberry industry dealt with that requirement by negotiating what is called a blanket permit, which allowed growers to do maintenance or alterations on existing facilities of up to ten acres without special permission.

But the Clean Water Act also allowed states to create their own water-quality standards, and Wisconsin has now done that, adopting a set of rules that strongly encourages, if it doesn’t absolutely require, growers to put new cranberry beds on upland soils.

Briefly, the rules say that the state can veto any permit application or any work done under the nationwide blanket permit if the project threatens to reduce the value of a significant wetland. Since wetlands perform many functions, there are many kinds of threats and many ways to define “significant.” The most direct threat is the total replacement of wetland acreage with engineered cranberry beds, but there are others: discharging water laced with pesticide residues or water enriched with fertilizer runoff into a wetland could also be cause for objection, and so could interference with flood control or groundwater recharge. Altering the water regime in a way that converts one kind of wetland to another can create problems too by dooming distinctive living communities.

When the state proposed its water-quality standards, threatening to close a door that had been left open for more than a century, the cranberry industry had people at every public hearing to object. Half the responses the DNR received opposing the new rules came from the cranberry industry.

But for environmentalists, the cran- berry growers’ exemption from regulation seemed an unjustifiable anachronism, a lingering reminder of the days when draining a swamp was looked on as a completely beneficial undertaking, an act to be encouraged. Spencer Black, a Madison Democrat who chairs the committee on natural resources in the state house of representatives, first petitioned the state to adopt rules regulating the cranberry growers in 1979. At the time, he was serving as president of the John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club.

“The court’s interpretation of the old cranberry law gave the growers a free ride on regulations,” he says. “Yet 54 percent of the wetland losses in Wisconsin have been due to cranberry growing, more than for all other causes combined.

“They also release big slugs of fertilizers and pesticides to nearby surface waters, including trout streams. They need to be regulated under the wetlands regs.”

Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin Cranberry Growers’ Association, as might be expected, disputes Black’s point of view. Cranberry growers, he says, are not destroying wetlands but preserving them; they should be left alone to continue their good work.

What I discovered when I began looking into this issue is that when you talk to a cranberry grower about the effect of his work on the land, he tells you about the reservoir. When you talk to an environmentalist, he tells you about the bed.

The difference is vast. A cranberry grower’s reservoir can be a thing of beauty. Around Babcock, the land that is now flooded by the reservoirs was often covered by sedge meadows before the cranberry growers altered it. Sedges are narrow-leaved herbs that to an untutored eye look remarkably like grasses. The sedges grew in a peaty muck, and when the reservoirs were flooded, the muck detached itself from the subsoil and floated to the top. Floating mats of vegetation are a common feature of natural bogs, and the reservoirs mimic them.

The floating mat is likely to be in the center of the reservoir, with open water surrounding it. Cattails and other emergent marsh plants cover the water at the shallow edges, and wildlife abounds. The cranberry growers have funded some research into the use of their reservoirs by wildlife. Lyle Nauman, a professor at the School of Natural Resources of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, directed a survey by one of his graduate students, a young man named Eric Jorgensen, who used the study for his master’s thesis. His list of nesting birds in the reservoirs totaled more than 100 species. Along with the expected species–sora, blue-winged teal, tree swallow–the list included a couple of big surprises: prairie chicken and bobolink. These are prairie birds that may have been attracted by the floating sedges’ resemblance to open grassland.

There are not very many muskrats in these reservoirs. The growers hire trappers to keep them out. Muskrats are burrowers, and people who have elaborate systems of dikes do not want burrowing animals around.

But there are American bitterns in the cattails, harriers hunting over the floating sedges, and five species of swallows hawking insects. There are red-shouldered hawks hunting the 11 species of turtles and frogs, common snipe displaying high above the waters, and Lincoln’s sparrows skulking amid the floating sedges.

And, of course, there are sandhill cranes. Eric Jorgensen found these stately birds on every property he surveyed. Back in the 40s, Aldo Leopold studied the sandhill cranes of Wisconsin and found only 25 pairs in the state. Today there are thousands, and Nauman thinks the cranberry reservoirs made a major contribution to their comeback.

“We put together a handbook for growers,” Nauman told me, “telling them how to manage their land for wildlife. The main limiting factor was a lack of nesting sites, so they have put up nesting boxes for wood ducks and bluebirds, structures for swallows, and even nesting platforms for ospreys and bald eagles.”

So far, neither of those big raptors has chosen to nest by a reservoir, but immature birds have been seen hanging around.

While growers point to the reservoirs with their sandhill cranes and tree swallows, the environmentalists point to the cranberry beds themselves, which are another story entirely. To create a cranberry bed, you run major pieces of heavy equipment over the land and scrape off all the topsoil, together with any wild plants, seeds, insects, nematodes, and other living things that happen to reside in or on that soil. The soil is replaced by a layer of sand, which is the actual substrate that will support the vines. You surround the bed with earthen dikes, level the sand as precisely as possible–today lasers may be used for this part of the process–and plant. The result is a monoculture that bears about the same relationship to a natural wetland as a corn-field does to a tall-grass prairie.

And then there is all the stuff that drains out of the beds: residues of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides; fertilizers that the vines did not absorb. All of it flows right into the ditches that ultimately lead to streams, rivers, and lakes.

For all their prosperity, cranberry growers are pretty small stuff in the context of American agriculture. No chemical company has ever thought it worthwhile to sink millions into an R&D project to develop a poison that would be specific for the black-headed fire worm or the cranberry tip worm or any of the other plagues that afflict cranberry crops.

So the growers fell back on the standard broad-spectrum insecticides, including such nasty stuff as parathion–which is now banned. And because the beds cannot withstand heavy equipment, growers often applied these chemicals by air. Crop-dusting planes inevitably sprayed some of these poisons in the ditches alongside the beds, and the ditches carried it directly to the nearest trout stream.

In 1989 and 1990, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection measured concentrations of a pesticide called Diazinon in water draining from treated beds. Growers were using the poison to kill the cranberry girdler, another of the pests that afflict the plants.

Diazinon is very nasty stuff. The warning label from the EPA says: “This product is toxic to fish, birds, and wildlife including waterfowl. Birds or waterfowl feeding or drinking on treated areas may be killed. . . . Keep out of lakes, streams, ponds, tidal marshes, and estuaries. . . . Do not apply to water that will be used for recreational purposes and human and livestock consumption. Shrimp and crab may be killed at application rates recommended on this label.”

The test results showed dangerous levels of Diazinon were escaping from all the beds. The state has since removed this chemical from the list of those approved for use on cranberries. But the removal of a single chemical does not solve the problems created by the application of pesticides to the wetland environment in which the cranberry vines are embedded. It will take more radical measures to deal with that.

Dr. Daniel Mahr is working on such radical measures. Mahr, an entomologist on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has spent the last six years working on a scheme of integrated pest management for cranberry growers. His research is funded by the growers. Integrated pest management (IPM) involves the use of a variety of methods, including biological controls, changes in cultural practices, and the minimum possible use of chemicals to control pests.

“Our first move,” Mahr told me, “was to scout the beds and monitor the level of pest activity. That way we could spray only when it was absolutely necessary. Just by doing this, we were able to reduce pesticide use by 40 percent.” Now many growers have learned to do this for themselves, and private consultants are offering scouting services for those who haven’t.

A cultural practice called sanding also shows some promise as a means of controlling very small insects, among them the cranberry tip worm, which is the larval stage of a midge. The tip worm is only about two millimeters long. It winters just below the surface of the soil. Every three to five years, growers apply a layer of sand to their beds; this is done in the winter, when the beds are frozen in blocks of ice. The sand is spread directly over the ice, and in spring it settles to the soil surface. Sanding promotes root growth, and Mahr has found that it can also prevent the tiny tip worm from climbing out of the soil and up onto the plants.

As a native species, cranberries may have more natural enemies than imported crops do, and that makes IPM more difficult to achieve. But balancing that is the fact that the natural enemies have natural enemies of their own; for example, Mahr has found one native parasitic wasp that lays its eggs on tip worm larvae. When such a natural enemy is found, growers can avoid doing things–like spraying broad-spectrum insecticides–that will harm the enemy. Beneficial insects can also be grown in captivity and released in large numbers in the beds.

A parasitic wasp called Trichogramma is currently being tested on cranberry beds in British Columbia, and it shows signs of being able to make a serious dent in black-headed fire worm populations. This summer, Mahr will be testing a bacterium called Baccillus thuringiensis that is highly toxic to the caterpillars of various moths. Organic farmers spray this one on their crops.

As Mahr’s results begin to point toward practical alternatives to heavy pesticide use, he sees no difficulty in getting the growers to adopt the new methods. “They are a very progressive group,” he told me. “They are always looking for a better way.”

That characterization of the growers is a view that is widely shared. Even George Meyer, director of enforcement for the DNR, who has been arguing with them for years, says they are better educated and better informed than other agricultural groups. “They always know the rules for things like pesticide use,” he says. “Many corn farmers or soybean farmers don’t know that kind of thing.”

The final question in the cranberry controversy, the one that only time will answer, is whether or not the industry can expand out of the wetlands. Can cranberries be grown successfully over the long term on uplands? The DNR says yes, there is no doubt. It has already been done in Massachusetts and there are even a few upland beds in Wisconsin. You can see some from the highway where I-94 and I-90 split just south of Tomah.

Tom Lochner of the Cranberry Growers’ Association wonders whether these upland beds will last. There are beds in wetlands that have been producing continuously for a century. Will upland beds be able to match that record without continuing expensive maintenance? And where will these upland growers get their water? According to Lochner, there are no aquifers in central Wisconsin that could deliver pumped water in enough volume to meet a cranberry grower’s needs. So the grower would need a reservoir that could be pumped full and then drawn on as needed.

The growers are very reluctant to take a chance on something this new. Lochner says that Massachusetts’s strict wetland rules are what allowed Wisconsin to pass the Bay State and become the leading cranberry grower. The New England growers just couldn’t expand their acreage to meet demand.

However, there are other factors confining the growers in Massachusetts. Their industry is centered on Cape Cod, an area that has experienced a major influx of people and houses in recent years. Growers face steep increases in land prices, and many are now surrounded by subdivisions so that no land is available for farming at any price. Some Massachusetts growers are looking north to Maine in search of new space to grow berries, and the state of Maine is eager to welcome them. Maine had cranberry bogs prior to World War I, but the industry died out there in the days before Ocean Spray created the cranberry boom.

The University of Maine and the state’s department of agriculture have done extensive studies of the economics of cranberry growing. A few years ago, they came up with an estimate of $50,000 an acre to build an upland cranberry marsh. They were calculating that one would need 20 acres of beds to make such a project economically viable, which would mean a minimum investment of $1 million to go into the cranberry business. This is a lot of money, but the other side of the story is that at present prices, a grower could pay off that million within 12 years, and from then on could make very good money indeed.

I talked to Warren Hedstrom of the University of Maine, and he gave me a breakdown of the numbers. They included estimated land acquisition costs, so if one already owned the land, the job would be cheaper. They also included costs for building dikes, installing water-control equipment, spreading sand on the beds, and buying vines, and these are costs that a grower putting new beds in wetlands would also have to pay.

The biggest single difference in cost between upland and wetland sites is land preparation. To put a cranberry bed in an upland, you need to create an artificial wetland by scraping off soil until you reach the water table. The surface of the bed needs to be just a few inches above the water table both to keep the plants watered and to allow the growers to flood the bed for harvesting and winter frost protection. Try to flood a true upland and, unless the soil is underlain by an impermeable hardpan, the water will just sink into the ground. Digging down to the water table is probably not going to be much of a problem on the bed of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. Most places there, you could reach the water table by striking at the ground with your heel.

The Maine study assumes that cranberry marshes should be designed as essentially closed systems. Water moves from the reservoir into the beds and from there into a retention pond where pumps return it to the reservoir. No wetlands are destroyed, no pesticide residues or excess nutrients escape into trout streams, and the habitat for wetland wildlife created by the reservoir and the retention pond is all new, a net gain rather than just a conversion of one kind of wetland to another.

George Meyer sees these closed-system cranberry marshes as the future of the industry. Tom Lochner worries that small growers who want to expand their acreage on land they already own may be blocked by the new rules. Meyer says they may be, and they may not be. “There are wetlands of minimal value that could be converted without any objections from the DNR,” he says. “We have to approach these things on a case by case basis.”

So for now, everyone will wait and see.

For information on the Wisconsin cranberry country, see the Visitors’ Guide, in this issue, under Tomah, WI.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.