Michigan once had a strong, vibrant cranberry industry. But after a labor shortage following World War I, the industry all but dried up.
The acidic soil the fruit once thrived in is now dominated by blueberry production.
Wally Hugget grew up on a sod farm in eastern Michigan. More than 30 years ago when his sons were old enough to take over, Hugget wanted to explore historical niche crops.
“Before sod we had peppermint and spearmint, which is just about extinguished in Michigan,” he says. “That was our background—we were always interested and involved in niche crops. That’s where I became involved, interested, and researched cranberries for a number of years before I ever started.”
It didn’t come naturally for Hugget. There was a learning curve he had to overcome.
“We had test plots at the sod farm in Marlette,” says Hugget. “Although they grew very well, it was too far south to have them successfully overwinter—it was difficult for us to keep ice on them. I came to the sad conclusion that our initial attempts to grow cranberries in Sanilac County was flawed because I was doing the right thing but in the wrong place.”
His next challenge was to find a location Goldilocks zone—not too warm, not too cold, and with soil chemistry juuust right.
“There’s a lot of areas you can grow cranberries, but you have to have a commercial operation,” says Hugget. “After studying, that was greater than 50 acres. I eventually ended up on a deserted pea operation in Cheboygan County, of which there was about 350 acres of pea land—very acidic—and all the adjoining land was sandy, so that’s where I stuck my flag.”
And so, the Michigan Cranberry Company was born in the 80s. Today, it is the largest cranberry marsh in Michigan, harvesting more than three million pounds each year. A third of their crop goes to Ocean Spray, and the remainder Hugget and his wife market themselves.
“The pleasure to a farmer is growing it, but the necessity is to sell it in a financially satisfactory way,” he says.
With so many holiday recipes calling for cranberries, Hugget’s favorite way to eat cranberries is the recipe on the back of the bag of fresh Michigan Cranberry Company cranberries.
“It’s my mother’s recipe, Verena Hugget,” he says. “It’s one-third ground-up cranberries, one-third temple oranges, and one-third cored apples—it’s a relish which is my favorite. You have to sweeten to taste because cranberries are so tart. Our good Michigan-grown sugar is a good addition.”
Indigenous Americans would harvest Michigan cranberries in their canoes and use them to preserve venison. Hugget says while there are hundreds of ways to enjoy the fruit now, it’s amazing we’re still eating the same things our ancestors ate thousands of years ago.