NEKOOSA – The JoongAng Daily is one of South Korea’s largest newspapers with a daily circulation of around 800,000.
Based in Seoul, the paper is relatively young. It was first published in 1965 by Lee Byung-chul, the founder of Samsung, and, if it were located here, would be the fourth largest newspaper in the U.S., behind the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today.
That’s why Ben Rezin, a sixth-generation cranberry farmer west of Nekoosa, was more than happy last week to equip Tae-Kyun Park, one of the paper’s top health reporters, with a pair of hip waders. Park is somewhat of a celebrity who routinely makes television appearances and has written several food- and health-related books.
Rezin, along with other cranberry farmers in central Wisconsin, wants to sell more cranberries. They’re hoping that Park, along with five other South Korean journalists, will return to their country of 50 million people and spread the news about their trek into a flooded cranberry bog and the health benefits of the little red, and sometimes white, berries.
“The potential is huge,” Rezin said about the Asian cranberry market. “The numbers are just astounding.”
Billions of potential customers devouring cranberries in the form of juice, tea, health bars and dried fruit could further increase cranberry production here in the states.
An estimated 800 million pounds of cranberries are projected to be harvested in the U.S. this fall by 1,200 growers farming 40,000 acres, according to the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee, which sponsored the visiting journalists.
Wisconsin will account for the majority of the harvest, with a projected 490 million pounds from 21,000 acres in 20 counties.
Cranberries have an annual economic impact in the state of about $300 million and support about 3,400 jobs, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. Expanding the global reach of the cranberry will mean positive economic returns for state farmers, officials say.
Since 2008, cranberry export volumes to South Korea have increased from about 600,000 pounds to more than 1.5 million pounds in 2012, said Scott Soares, executive director of the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are among the other countries where cranberry exports are on the rise, in part because of marketing campaigns that began in 1999.
“As those economies begin to grow, they start to seek out healthy products, like cranberries,” Soares said. “It really lines us up well with the crops we have and the increased volumes we’re seeing.”
For Park, this was his first visit to Wisconsin and followed a weekend reporting trip to northern California where he toured walnut farms.
When Park arrived via shuttle bus at Rezin’s Cranmoor Cranberry Co., he and his fellow journalists were a bit apprehensive about stepping over an 18-inch ditch and onto a dry cranberry bed.
Once they realized they were on firm ground with thousands of red berries mixed among the plants at their feet, they quickly began taking photos, bending and squatting down to get a closer look and taste.
A short time later, Park was in his waders slogging through a flooded bog and learning how the cranberry is swiped from the plant, floated, corralled by booms and raked onto a conveyor for shipment to a nearby Ocean Spray processing facility.
“It’s a very extraordinary experience for me,” Park said. “It’s a very beautiful farm.”
Park said cranberries are becoming popular in South Korea because of their slightly bitter taste, which in his country historically has been associated with keeping the heart healthy.
South Koreans also are fond of blueberries and soybeans, he said.
Choi Young Mee is editor-in-chief of Health Chosun Magazine, one of the country’s leading health publications that has a circulation of about 80,000 per month.
Like Park, she will focus her writings on the health benefits of cranberries and explain how the fruit is grown.
“In Korea, the land for farming is very small, so I was very impressed at the size of the cranberry marsh,” Young Mee said through an interpreter. “I was also impressed by the techniques that handle the cranberry processing.”
Commercial cranberry production began in Wisconsin in the 1830s, and the state has become a national powerhouse. The 4.9 million barrels (100 pounds equals a barrel) of cranberries produced this year is more than double the 2.1 million barrels expected from Massachusetts farmers this year.
Cranmoor Cranberry Co., founded in 1890, has 80 beds covering 196 acres. The farm underwent a major expansion in 1995, and nine to 13 acres are reconditioned each year.
About 75 percent of the beds are planted with Stevens cranberries, which yield about 310 barrels an acre. However, Rezin is adding Hyreds, developed at UW-Madison, which average 400 to 500 barrels per acre.
Ten years ago, Rezin’s farm averaged about 30,000 barrels a year. That yield has increased to 46,000 barrels a year.
Rezin and other farmers say they are ready for increased demand, regardless of the continent.
“Oversupplies the last two years have really been hurting the price,” Rezin said. “There’s millions and millions of people (in Asia). It’s just an untapped market.”