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The fourth novel in Jerry Apps’s Ames County series, Cranberry Red brings the story into the present, portraying the challenges of agriculture in the twenty-first century.
As the novel opens, Ben Wesley has lost his job as agricultural agent for Ames County. He is soon hired as a research application specialist for Osborne University, a for-profit institution that has developed “Cranberry Red,” a new chemical that promises not only to ...
The fourth novel in Jerry Apps’s Ames County series, Cranberry Red brings the story into the present, portraying the challenges of agriculture in the twenty-first century.
As the novel opens, Ben Wesley has lost his job as agricultural agent for Ames County. He is soon hired as a research application specialist for Osborne University, a for-profit institution that has developed “Cranberry Red,” a new chemical that promises not only to improve cranberry crop yields but also to endow the fruits with the power to prevent heart disease, reduce brain damage from strokes, and ward off Alzheimer’s disease. Ben must promote the new product to cranberry growers in Ames County and beyond, but he worries whether the promised results are credible. Was Cranberry Red rushed to market?
When the chemical does all that the university claims it will do, Ben is relieved . . . until disturbing side effects emerge. Can he criticize Cranberry Red and safeguard farmers and consumers without losing his job, or will Ben’s honesty get him fired while his community continues to get sicker?
Finalist, General Fiction, Midwest Book Awards
Oscar ... Oscar ... I've hooked a big one ... hooked a big one. Oscar, you hearin' me? I need help," Fred Russo yelled.
Fred, Oscar Anderson's lifelong friend and constant fishing companion since both of them quit farming twenty-five years ago, was on the front side of eighty-five. Oscar was a few years older. They both fished the Tamarack River from shore, as they had done once or twice a week every summer since they retired.
"Dammit, Oscar, I need help. Where the hell are ya?" Both men had spent too many years around loud farm machinery such as silo fillers and threshing machines and tractors that needed new mufflers. On a good day they could hear one another if they stood a couple of feet apart. Most of the time they talked outside this range, so conversations resulted in exchanges such as: "You thirsty, Fred?" "Nah, today's Wednesday; tomorrow is Thursday."
Fred yelled again, this time louder. "Oscar, dammit, where the hell you at?" Fred's fiberglass spinning rod bent in an arch as he cranked on the reel. The fifteen-pound test line kept tearing off the reel—even with the drag on near full, Fred couldn't turn around whatever had taken his bait.
Wearing an old Filson hat his kids had given him for his eightieth birthday, Oscar Anderson slowly appeared from around a bend in the river. He carried a spinning rod in one hand and a wooden walking stick in the other. Temperatures on that sunny May afternoon had climbed into the eighties with not a hint of a breeze.
"Hold your damn horses, will ya, Fred? I'm a comin' as fast as I can."
"'Bout time you showed up," Fred said. "I've hooked a big one. Helluva big one. He's a real pole bender."
"You sure you ain't snagged a stump or maybe an old tire somebody threw in the river?" Oscar said. He was near out of breath as he approached his friend, who was tugging on his spinning rod and twisting on the reel handle. Fred wore bib overalls and a straw hat, the same clothing he'd worn for years on the farm. He was tall and thin and sweat streamed down his tanned, deeply wrinkled face.
"He ain't broke water yet; figure he's one of them big old northerns," Fred said.
"You sure you got a fish on?"
"Dammit, Oscar. I got me a fish on this line and he's a lunker."
The Big Tamarack River flowed lazily along the western boundary of Ames County before it dumped into the Wisconsin River to the west. It flowed through marshland, past several cranberry bogs, and through a nature preserve where sandhill cranes found a summer home along with beaver and muskrats and ducks and Canada geese too lazy to fly to their namesake country to nest and raise their goslings. The river twisted and turned and sometimes nearly came back on itself. Because of these characteristics it was a good fishing river, especially for those fishermen who baited their hooks for small and large mouth bass, and for northern pike.
On this day Fred Russo used a big bucktail spinner with number two treble hooks, the kind that fluttered and caught the light and was supposed to attract fish from some distance away. He'd caught other northerns with this spinner, so he knew it worked.
"I need a little help," Fred said as he continued cranking on the reel.
"So, what you want me to do?"
"Let's both grab hold my fish line and we'll haul that big bastard in hand over hand, like we do when we're ice fishin'."
"But this ain't ice fishin'."
"I know it ain't ice fishin', ... but I think it'll work."
Oscar shoved his walking stick into the dirt so it stood up straight and grabbed the shaking fishing line.
"Okay, I got the line. Damn, it's a big something you got yourself hooked onto."
The two old men, not as strong as they once were, but both in good shape for their ages, slowly pulled on Fred's line. The fish tugged so hard the line vibrated as the two men pulled on it hand over hand, the heavy line nearly cutting their calloused hands. A pile of monofilament gathered in front of them.
"Shouldn't be long now and we'll see what we got."
"Probably a big old carp," Oscar said.
"Ain't no carp. No carp fights like this."
Just then Oscar glimpsed the fish in the water, coming toward them with its mouth wide open and the bucktail spinner hanging from a lower lip.
"Damn," Oscar said. "Damn. You got yourself a real fish."
"You just keep on pullin', Oscar. We let up and he's gonna shake that spinner loose and he's gone."
"I'm pullin'," Oscar replied. "I'm pullin'."
When the fish came within ten or so feet of shore, Oscar, still holding onto the line, waded into the water. He wore rubber knee boots, a pair he always wore fishing.
In the water no more than a few seconds, Oscar came splashing out. He dropped the fishing line, which Fred continued to hold.
"What're you doin'?" Fred asked.
"Son-of-a-bitch took after me."
"Whattya you mean, took after you?"
"Fish went right after me, its big jaws clompin' up and down. Tried to bite me on the leg."
"To hell, you say. Fish tried to bite you?"
"Sure as hell that fish tried to bite me."
"If you say so, Oscar. Grab hold this line again and we'll pull him in."
Fred had lost a little ground since Oscar had let go of the line and the fish swam farther out in the river. The two men continued pulling and this time they yanked the giant northern pike on shore, just out of the water.
The big fish lay in front of the two perspiring men, appearing to eye them.
"Big bastard, ain't he?" Oscar commented.
"Biggest fish I ever caught," Fred replied, pulling off his straw hat and rubbing a red handkerchief across his face. While Fred was still holding his straw hat, the big fish made a giant leap toward him, just missing his leg with its giant tooth-studded mouth.
"See, what'd I tell you. Fish went after you, too."
Fred jumped back, put on his straw hat, and stuffed his handkerchief into his back pocket.
"Mean son-of-a bitch," Fred said.
The fish leaped again, this time toward Oscar, who stood holding his walking stick. The giant fish missed Oscar's leg by inches and grabbed the walking stick, biting it in two with little effort.
"Good God, you see that?" Oscar exclaimed. "Damn fish bit my walking stick in two. It's made out of hickory."
With the tension off the fishing line, the big fish shook loose the spinner and continued flopping on the shore. With a giant leap, it flipped back in the water, where it hesitated for a moment or two before swimming off into the deep.
Oscar looked at Fred, then at his severed walking stick. "I don't think we should tell anybody about this," Oscar said quietly.
"I think we'd better go home," Fred said. "I've had enough fishing for one day." He balled up the tangled fishing line and stuffed it in his pocket.
Ben Wesley hadn't seen it coming; he should have, but he didn't. When the news came, it felt like somebody kicked him in the stomach. The University of Wisconsin was laying him off. Firing him. Putting him on the trash heap. Ben was forty-five years old and had worked as a county agricultural agent for twenty years. The best years of his life, at least to Ben's way of thinking. And now his career was finished. Kaput. Gone forever.
And he was mad as hell. Who was to blame? Had he done something wrong? Ticked somebody off—did something so bad that they complained enough to get him fired? Who could that be, who would have done it? After you're twenty years in a job you're bound to have some enemies, no questions about that. He thought about the people who probably didn't like him, didn't like the advice he gave, or perhaps even in a few cases were unhappy when he had given the wrong advice. There were a few times like that. He remembered the farmer who came into the office with his wife one day; both of them were about in tears. They said they were about to lose their farm, and would he put in a good word for them at the bank so they could get their loan renewed. He did that. He shouldn't have. They still lost their farm. Getting their loan renewed wasn't the problem, doing a decent job as a farmer was. These folks, as sincere as they seemed, just couldn't cut it. Ben hadn't taken time to look into their situation well enough; he'd let emotion affect his decision. The couple was mad at him and the bank loan officer never forgot the situation either.
Of course Ben wasn't the only county agent in Wisconsin to lose his job. They were all fired, every last one, because all the county offices were to shut down on July 1. Hints and rumors about closing down the county agent offices in Wisconsin had been floating around for several years. It seemed every year the state budget was in worse shape than the year before, and lawmakers seemed stunned about what to do. Two themes emerge each time a budget crisis comes into focus: Cut programs. Raise taxes. This time the program cutters had apparently won the day. Ben didn't have much confidence in the state's lawmakers. Long ago he'd concluded that most of the lawmakers in the state capitol in Madison didn't know a blame thing about farming and didn't seem to care either. They spent most of their time worrying about where to build another prison, who shouldn't be eligible for welfare payments, and which highway bridge had to be fixed before it fell in the river.
Ben got the news of his dismissal in a terse e-mail message from Madison:
From: Joseph Higgins, Assistant Dean, UWAAP To: Ben Wesley Date: June 4 Subject: Job Elimination I regret to inform you that the legislature has voted to eliminate the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Agent Program (UWAAP). Unfortunately, this means all UWAAP employees will be dismissed and all county offices will be closed on July 1 of this year. Our administrators have been fighting the possibility of this decision for many months, but ultimately the legislature has spoken. A letter will follow, including the status of vacation time and retirement benefits.
Ben couldn't believe it. Surely they didn't mean him. But they did. A stroke of a politician's pen and he and his colleagues in every county in Wisconsin would disappear. Like water spilled on a hot stove that evaporates in a little cloud of steam.
Ben Wesley's office was in the Ames County courthouse, a big, early-twentieth-century brick building with a statue of a civil war veteran on the front lawn standing straight with a musket at his side. Nothing fancy about his office. At one time four people worked there: Madeline Draper, who was family living agent; Floyd Evenson, 4-H agent; Delores Curry, the office secretary; and Ben Wesley. Now it was just Delores and Ben. Floyd and Madeline's jobs were eliminated three years ago in a round of budget cuts.
Ben should have paid more attention when their jobs disappeared—the handwriting was on the wall and he didn't see it. Ben's supervisor had said, "As soon as the budget is restored, we'll put those two positions back in your office." But that never happened. Three years ago, Ben had taken on the administration of the county 4-H program, which he added to his other duties. The family living program had lapsed into oblivion.
Ben leaned back in his chair and brushed his hand through his thinning hair. He figured his wooden desk arrived the same day the first agricultural agent came into the county—that was 1915. The desk was dirty brown and scarred here and there from smokers whose cigarettes fell out of the ashtray. Wooden bookshelves covered one wall of the institutional-gray room and likely arrived that same year. Some of the reference books and bulletins that he'd never tossed out came about that time, too: "How to Shoe a Horse." "Why Concrete Silos Make Sense." "Controlling Flies in Your Dairy Barn." "Best Methods for Growing Cranberries." "How to Prune Apple Trees."
Ben walked to the window and looked out on the courthouse lawn and the petunia bed that had just come into its own. "What am I gonna do now? Beth will have a fit," he said aloud.
He pounded his fist on the old desk. He could feel a tension headache building in the back of his neck.
Ben Wesley quickly decided the worst part of losing his job was telling his wife. He and Beth had been married for twenty-one years. They had two kids: Liz, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Josh, in his first year at Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids. It was no time to lose his job. With two kids in college, plus the mortgage on his house, his expenses had never been higher.
"I'm home," Ben said when he entered their modest house on Cedar Drive in Willow River, the county seat for central Wisconsin's Ames County. The lawn needed cutting and weeds had overgrown the flowerbed next to the sidewalk. The house could use a coat of paint. Josh was spending the summer at his grandparents' farm in Clark County, so he was not around to help. Liz had a summer job in Wisconsin Dells, at one of those water parks. Ben had hardly seen either of the kids so far this summer.
How should I break the news to Beth? he thought. He'd never been fired before—he hadn't been fired this time either—except come July 1, he wouldn't have a job. Comes out the same way. Laid off or fired. He'd still have no income.
"How's Mr. Agricultural Agent today?" Beth said by way of greeting. Ben couldn't tell by the tone of her voice if she'd had a good day or not. Beth never quite appreciated what being an agricultural agent meant, as she was a city girl, having grown up in Chicago. She, from the very beginning of Ben's career in Ames County, thought he worked too hard and put in too many hours for the pay he received. Just yesterday she'd said, "Ben, when are you going to start saying no? You're always working. Every evening. Almost every Saturday and Sunday. We never have any weekends together."
Ben knew she had a point. Over the years, Beth had by herself attended the kids' school events, taken them to the doctor and dentist, and listened to their problems because he was at some meeting or was out on a farm call dealing with some problem that couldn't wait.
"I'm beat," Ben said. "Bitch of a day."
"Well, you don't have to swear about it."
"'Bitch' isn't swearing."
"Sounds like swearing to me—thought we had a rule. No swearing in this house."
"Any beer in the fridge?" Ben was trying to think of a way of telling Beth his job was gone. He had a fierce headache, the kind that started just above his left eye and ended up in his neck. A stress headache, the doctor had once told him when he described the symptoms.
"How am I supposed to know if we've got any beer? I don't drink the stuff."
"Sounds like your day wasn't too great, either," Ben said, still wondering how he was going to say what he knew he must.
"What do you care about my job?"
"Well, I care. More than you think."
"I doubt that. What do you know about what I do? Next to nothing. I'm on my feet all day, running up and down hospital halls answering patient calls, listening to whining doctors. We're always shorthanded. Never enough aides. Every shift at the hospital someone doesn't show up. At least once a week I have to do a double shift. Bet you didn't know that." Beth's green eyes opened wide as she spoke.
"I've got some news," Ben said quietly as he opened the refrigerator, found a bottle of Leinie's Red, and popped off the cap. He took a long drink from the bottle.
"I hope you're gonna tell me you got a raise."
"No. I did not get a raise."
"So, what's the news?"
"I ... I got laid off. The office is closing July 1. No more agricultural agent in Ames County."
"You've been fired." Beth raised her voice a bit. "The bastards in Madison fired you."
"Yup, I'm all through in two weeks."
"Why'd they fire you?"
"Fired all the county agricultural agents."
"All of them?"
For a time they both just stood there in the kitchen, Ben looking at his beer, Beth looking out the window.
Then Ben started to explain. "The tax-cutting Republicans and a few weak-kneed Democrats got a majority on their side and cast the vote to cut our budget. Not just cut it. Eliminate it. Do away with it."
"So you don't have a job."
"No more income!" Beth had her hands on her hips, her green eyes flashing.
Excerpted from Cranberry Red by Jerry Apps Copyright © 2010 by Jerry Apps . Excerpted by permission of Terrace Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1 Fred and Oscar 3
2 Lost Job 7
3 Beth Wesley 10
4 Local Agent Out 14
5 Shotgun Slogum 17
6 Visiting Shotgun 21
7 Fred and Oscar 29
8 Phone Call 32
9 Dr. Sara Phillips 35
10 New Job? 42
11 Beth and Osborne University 45
12 Shotgun's Advice 48
13 Conversation with Lars 51
14 Hailstorm 54
15 Cranberry Red 60
16 Fred and Oscar 65
17 Brittani Stone 68
18 The Osborne Dream 72
19 Business Office 78
20 Fourth of July 82
21 Gunnar Godson 86
22 Farm Visit 92
23 Business of the Year 97
24 Ben and Brittani 99
25 Fred and Oscar 105
26 RED 108
27 Rules 110
28 Promoting RFD 114
29 RED News 120
30 Celebration Planning 122
31 Ames County Fair 127
32 Cranberry Red Meeting 131
33 The Day After 138
34 Office Problems 143
35 Fish Survey 146
36 Fishing with Lars 149
37 Family Cookout 154
38 Celebration News 159
39 Fred and Oscar 163
40 Harvest at Shotgun's 166
41 Gunnar's Discovery 173
42 Budget Shorfall 178
43 Paul and Gloria Mayer 181
44 Research Problem 186
45 RFD Collapses 191
46 Ben and Dr. Phillips 193
47 Healthy Always Cranberries 199
48 County Fair Eliminated 202
49 Beth Wins Osborne Award 208
50 Fred and Oscar 215
51 Phillips and the Outreach Office 220
52 Chris Martin 225
53 Secret Meeting 230
54 Teaching Strategies 235
55 Gunnar's Research 239
56 Brittani and Chris 241
57 Two Faces of Osborne 246
58 Fred and Oscar 253
59 Queen Selection 255
60 Ups and Downs 263
61 Cranberry One-Fifty 269
62 Celebration Continues 277
63 Anonymous Letter 284
64 Gus and the Tamarack River 290
65 Ben and Shotgun Slogum 293
66 Ira Osborne Commemorative Park 298
67 Fallout 304
Author's Note 311
Posted March 31, 2012