Flooding for the harvest

Everything here starts, as we have said so often, with the water.

Water is essential for cranberry production all year round, but during harvest good water management is paramount. At Pine Island, managing the water for their crews is the central task for our three harvest teams. “You always have to stay a little ahead of the flooding,” says Jeremy Fenstermaker. No matter when a team moves to a new bog system, he and the other team leaders need to have the water started well before that. “You eventually develop an instinct for water levels and how to raise and drop the levels in a bog in order to maximize efficiency for the crews,” he says, and is always thinking of ways to make things better and how to move water faster. Part of his job is simply making daily observations and taking note of things that could be improved. “Sometimes you find a place that would be better to put a gate, or you find a way to move water through a canal rather than a reservoir.” In order to conserve water, Pine Island manages things so that we reuse as much water as possible to harvest as many bogs as possible. It’s arranged in a very specific pattern to work with gravity and conserve energy.

While it is the overriding priority, water management is not a team leader’s only concern. They also has to coordinate with his crew leaders; when the team on the Gates Harrow are done, they move ahead to the next bog while the gathering crew get the berry pump set up and begin to corral the berries before sending them to the receiving station. The team leader’s job is to make sure that the timing of each crew complements the other.

Even before the bog is flooded, the team leaders have a lot to do. They need to pull sprinklers, stake bogs so the harrow driver knows where to start (or, in older bogs that still use the reels, so the crew leader knows which direction to go), place boards in flood gates, flood to picking level, pick, flood some more in order to tighten the boom around the berries and bring them to the elevator without having to pull through high grass or weeds, and then gather. “And it’s not as easy as it looks,” Jeremy says wryly.

In addition to maintaining the careful choreography of a typical daily harvest, the team leaders must have a back-up plan for when something goes wrong. . .and something will always go wrong! A flood gate will get clogged, a harvester will break down, a truck won’t start. . . a team leader needs to prepare for all those things and either know what he has to do to fix them himself or how to delegate. “Knowledge comes with experience,” Jeremy says. “If you do it long enough, you get a feel for what needs to happen.”

Berry pump

About six years ago, we made some changes from the way we’d been gathering the crop for years by investing in a new berry pump, also known as a bogside cleaner. The bogside cleaner improved the process by taking out a stop at our packing house between the bog and the receiving station and removing debris as the berries come out of the water. This is better on fuel and easier on the team, as it requires fewer people in the water. As with any new equipment, there was a learning curve, but our team made modifications as they became necessary and took notes for subsequent harvests.

When we first started considering a berry pump, some of our team went out to Wisconsin and looked at three or four makes of cleaners as well as looking at one owned by our neighbors. We ended up going with Paul’s Machine & Tool because they’d already done quite a bit to accommodate the user interface to make it more intuitive, and they were also very willing to customize it however we wanted.

The real test was during harvest itself, of course, and as expected, the team found that the machine would need some modifications based on practical use. So when we ordered a second machine, we asked Paul’s to make some design changes. The new berry pump added extra row of cleaning grates to the cleaning box and changed spacing on the box. At same time we sent the old cleaning box back and they sent us the new 5 grate design in return.

We learn a little more every year about the best way to run the bog side cleaners, and now we’re up to four! This summer our equipment team built racks for the trailer to carry the things the crew will need for them. “A lot of what we’re doing is polish on the berry pump operations, really; the first couple of years we were learning how to use them, then we we were experimenting with various modifications to customize them for our own operation,” Louis Cantafio said at the time.

Each crew used to carry around all the stuff for the pumps, but racks are going to keep things more organized and more accessible. It’s going to be much more efficient when a crew can readily see that they have everything they need.

Hauling – 2021 harvest

While our picking schedule sometimes changes, the processes involved remain pretty much the same!

Once the fruit is gathered, it’s run through the bogside cleaner, which removes debris (such as leaves, vines, et cetera) as the berries are coming out of the bog. It’s a very efficient process that means we can get the fruit to the Ocean Spray receiving station as quickly as possible, and we have a fleet of trucks to help that along!

The trucks are wired to a set of lights so the gathering team leader can communicate effectively from the cleaner’s platform. When one section of the trailer is full, the team leader hits a button and the yellow light in the truck cab indicates that it’s time to move forward! If the driver moves up a little too far, the team leader will use the red light indicator to tell the driver to back up.)

Once the truck is full (whether it’s cleaned with the bogside cleaner or at our own packing house), it’s time to head down the road!

Once the driver gets to the receiving station, he drives to the scales, where he turns in the paperwork and Ocean Spray takes some initial samples.

He is assigned a pool number, then drives around back and backs up to the assigned pool.

The crew at the station then start running the equipment needed to clear the berries from the trailer and take additional samples as needed. When the truck is empty, it’s back around to the scales to be weighed again, and off again home to pick up another load!

Harvesting methods – 2021

While our team started harvesting our young beds and early varieties a couple of weeks ago (some varieties color earlier than others, and that is a factor we consider when planning our picking strategy), the slightly warmer September weather has meant that we’re not getting all the color that we want, so our team went down to one crew this week and are even getting a weekend off!

So far this year the crews have been running the Gates Harrow, rather than our old reel harvesters.

Since the 60s, when Bill Haines, Sr. moved entirely to water harvesting, we’ve been using the reel harvesters. Since 2014, however, as our team continues to renovate older beds to improve drainage and yield, we’ve been relying more and more on the Gates Harrow. The Gates Harrow is not as hard on the plants as the reel harvesters, and our renovation program is geared for increased efficiency by being user-friendly for equipment like this. But there are still older beds in the center of the farm that are easier to pick using the former method.

When it comes to picking with the reels, there’s a lot to think about; it’s not as easy as just putting the machines in the water. There’s a method to it in order to keep from damaging the fruit or the vines. The difficulty fluctuates slightly due to bog size, weeds, and terrain, as well as other variables such as water levels, crop size, and even berry variety. Some berries do not float to the surface as easily and remain under the vine canopy, which is why they stagger machines in the water in order to both maximize yield and minimize damage to the vines. Each bog is picked in a specific pattern according to terrain, and the picking crew has to carefully move their harvesters around stakes which have been arranged for maximum operational efficiency. Following this pattern allows for minimal damage to the vines. The crew leader also needs to stay ahead of his crew and check for ditches, for everyone’s safety.

The Gates Harrow is a simple machine set up to cover more ground. At the front is a rod which holds vines down to the ground; as the tractor moves forward, the berries pop off the stems and roll up over the tines on the rake. It’s not as hard on the plants as our usual method, and our renovation program is geared for increased efficiency by being user-friendly for equipment like this. It also picks a lot cleaner; it knocks almost everything off the vines. With the standard reels you’ll still find some berries left here and there. There are also some fuel savings with just one tractor running. It’s also less labor intensive; we typically run a six man picking crew and their target is about 12.5 acres per day. On a more level set of bogs, they can do more than that, but with a Gates Harrow a two-man crew can get through 40 acres.

As the nights continue to cool down, we’ll start seeing more color; by October, we’ll be running all three harvest teams!

North Atlantic Prescribed Fire Science Workshop 2021

Pine Island was the final stop on the tour for the 2021 North Atlantic Prescribed Fire Science Workshop. The goal for the workshop was “to reset, recharge, and reimagine the future of fire science co-production”, with a trip to Pine Island and other sites to “stimulate discussion about regional prescribed fire science challenges and solutions.”

Pine Island was chosen as a site for the Northern Bobwhite Restoration Initiative back in 2013. Over the course of four years (from 2014 to 2018), over 300 wild birds were captured on private land in Georgia, then transferred to our farm, where they were fitted with radio collars, released, and monitored, with the goal of establishing a self-sustaining population. Our site was chosen for several reasons, among them a state-approved Forest Stewardship Plan outlining long-term management goals as well as the extent of existing quality habitat already onsite from years of active forestry work, prescribed burning and agricultural best management practices that made it stand out above other sites in the region.

Why is prescribed burning so important?

Thirty miles east of Philadelphia, the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve is one of the largest tracts of unbroken forest in the eastern United States. An urban escape, the 1.1-million-acre New Jersey Pine Barrens, as it’s known colloquially, features a mix of pitch pine, oak, and cedar forestland, and is home to roughly 850 plant and nearly 500 animal species—including dozens of rare and threatened species, such as the Pine Barrens tree frog and the swamp pink orchid. It’s also one of the most flammable landscapes in North America. In fact, scientists who study the physics and ecology of wildfire have long used the Pine Barrens as a laboratory. Those who study fire here are honing techniques for protecting residents in fire-prone ecosystems around the country. They’re also using fire as a tool to restore critical habitats and conserve threatened species in this fragile ecosystem. – AMC Outdoors, September 30, 2020.

Upon arrival, the group got to hear from John Parke of NJ Audubon about the details of the Northern Bobwhite Quail Initiative, as well as some background on the farm and property itself from Pine Island owner Bill Haines. After, the group was able to wander around the site for a little while to see what our fire practices have done for the landscape.

“For the recovery of Northern Bobwhite Quail it is important to understand that prescribed fire is a principal management tool used in habitat restoration for this species,” said John Parke, Stewardship Project Director of NJ Audubon. “NJ Audubon is very proud to have been asked by the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange to be part of this workshop and showcase our Bobwhite Quail Translocation Project at the Pine Island Cranberry property. Also NJ Audubon would like to thank Pine Island Cranberry Company and the NJ Forest Fire Service for their amazing work to implement prescribed burning for the project and in the region, which not only helps create and maintain suitable habitat for Quail and other Pinelands species, but also helps to maintain proper Pinelands ecosystem functionality and protect the people and their property of the region by reducing fuel loads.”

Thank you to Amanda Mahaffey (Forest Stewards Guild) for putting the program together, and thank you to Albert Simeoni (WPI), Gabriel Cahalan (The Nature Conservancy), Geoffrey Lohmeyer (Ocean County Parks), Greg McLaughlin (NJ Forest Fire Service), J. Kevin Hiers (Tall Timbers), James Remuzzi (Sustainable Solutions, LLC), Jens Stevens (USDA Forest Service R&D Washington Office), Jeremy Webber (NJ Forest Fire Service), Jesse Kreye (Penn State University), Juan Cuevas (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Ken Clark (USDA Forest Service), Kyle Derr (Sustainable Solutions LLC), Lauren Howard (Arcadia University), Maura Roisin O’Connor, Michael R. Gallagher (USDA Forest Service), Nick Skowronski (USDA Forest Service), Robert L Kremens (Rochester Institute of Technology), Robert Somes (NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife), Sam Adams (Sustainable Solutions LLC), Sheila Kappeler-Finn (Duende Consulting), Steve Holmes (US Fish and Wildlife/USAF Wildland Fire Program), Vinh Lang (Pine Creek Forestry), Virginia Schutte (NAFSE), William F Brash (NJ Fire Safety Council), and last but not least, longtime friend and neighbor Tom Gerber of Quoexin Cranberry Company for attending!

Harvest time – 2021

It’s once again everyone’s favorite time of year: Pine Island’s cranberry harvest is officially underway!

Our team isn’t going full speed ahead just yet. “We’re picking the three year old beds right now; the canopy’s not as thick so they color sooner and can tend to go south real quick,” says manager Matt Giberson. “We’ve only run two crews so far but in two days we’ve picked 45 acres.” He says the rot percentage is a little higher than we like to see, but that’s to be expected with young beds.

“The four year old beds aren’t not quite there yet, but some of the Crimson Queens at Sim Place are just about ready so we’re going to get them on Monday,” Matt says. “We’ll start with two crews again and possibly start the third at 20 Acre once it’s ready. We’re still waiting on color over there; it’s crazy that one year’s difference can be that much.”

As our team continues to renovate older beds to improve drainage and yield, we’ve been relying more and more on the Gates Harrow to knock the berries from the vines. The Gates Harrow is not as hard on the plants as the reel harvesters, and our renovation program is geared for increased efficiency by being user-friendly for equipment like this. And, of course, we made some upgrades last summer that have made the process even more efficient!

“Getting started has been stressful but getting better,” says Matt. “The quality looks great and the color looks great.”

History roundup

As we look forward to the harvest, we’re also looking back into our past, like this post about our founder, Martin L. Haines:

The first topic for discussion, “Failures in Cranberry Growing and their Cause”, was opened by Capt. Haines, Mr. Budd being absent.

He said he had never failed in cranberry growing and hence was not a good judge.

We’ve also talked about his youngest son, Ralph Haines:

“He had a broad perspective and a lot of insight,” Bill says. “He loved the business and loved that it was a family business, but he was also interested in how it connected to the rest of the world. And I think he passed that on to the succeeding generations. He was the only brother to have children, and it’s his line who kept the business going.”

When talking about various projects around the farm, we frequently refer to the bogs by name, and some of them have interesting backstories!

We also have bogs named for former team members and residents. The best recognized is probably Fred Brown, a section consisting of four bogs located near Brown’s former home on the property. Fred is, of course, most well-known to readers of The Pine Barrens, by John McPhee, and was a highly colorful character, to put it mildly.

The events of this week have brought back some more recent memories, as well. Pine Island remained unscathed this time, but we weren’t so lucky with Isaac. But we were able to get back up and running before harvest!

…our team has risen to the challenge; they are working seven days a week from just about sunup to sundown to get us on track for the harvest and make us better than ever. Junior Colon, a second-generation employee who’s been with us full time for over thirty years, said it best out at Sim Place: “We’re still going. We won’t stop, and we’ll get it done.”

A note about this year’s harvest: while Pine Island Cranberry has never given tours to the public, we do try to keep a list of operations that do offer them. Most operations have suspended them for 2021 but are hoping to return in 2022. In the meantime, please keep checking the tour page: last year Whitesbog offered a wonderful self-directed regional driving tour and Rake Pond Farms offered a U-Pick option that was very popular, and we love to keep our readers informed of similar options as they turn up!

We also field a lot of questions about where people can take photos. We are not able to tell you with any certainty what days the harvest will be visible from the road; our plans can and frequently do change with the weather. But if you do time it right and see our crews harvesting at our roadside bogs, it’s perfectly okay to stop and take pictures! (Phones or cameras only; we do not permit drone photography.) Please remember, however, for our team’s safety and your own, that Pine Island Cranberry is still private property. Pull over somewhere safe, remain next to your vehicle (please do not walk or drive onto the dams to get a closer look), make sure to stay out of any driveways…and make sure to tag us at @picranberry! We love to see the beautiful shots people have taken.

Getting ready for the 2021 harvest!

Harvest is less than a month away and our team is hustling to get everything ready! We’re getting everything sharpened up on the farm right now; the team is working on both the chores that we need to get done and those that we like to get done. It’s always nice to have the farm tidy and ready beforehand.

The ditches surrounding every bog must be kept free of debris in order to ensure adequate water flow for both flooding and drainage. Cleaning the ditches is important for two reasons. First, it helps maintain the proper moisture level in the soil. Second, and most importantly, removing water from the bogs quickly is urgent in case of a big rain event.

It is important to make sure all of the equipment has been properly maintained well in advance of the harvest: the boom, boom reels, harvesters, et cetera. The boom is taken out and checked for any repairs that need to be made, and so is the reel. The harvesters are brought in and serviced at our shop. We also look over and repair as needed the blowers, trucks, and tractors for each harvesting crew and ensure we have all the tools and safety supplies necessary to get us through harvest.

We’ve also been assisting the Ocean Spray receiving station so they can calibrate their equipment; they’re currently getting the lab ready so growers can bring samples in to test for color and firmness. Manager Bob Garatino has retired and longtime employee Alonza Williams is now in charge! Alonza has long been a good friend to local cranberry growers and we’re glad to continue working with him in his new role.

Two months out of the year, the receiving station is cleaning and sizing cranberries. The rest of the year, they make sure our bins are cleaned and prepared for the next season. “Communication with the growers and timing delivery truly is the key,” Alonza says. The receiving station has 12 people on staff during the slower months, but by the time they’re in full swing that number grows to twice as many, and that’s when communication truly becomes essential: “We’ll stay in touch with growers for their start and end times and even Sundays, by request.”

We’re looking forward to the season and to working with Alonza to making it a great one!

ACGA Summer Field Day 2021

This week, the ACGA got to meet in person again for only the second time since last January!

Just as with the twilight meetings, in addition to the importance of new research findings the summer field day is also a great chance for the cranberry community to get together face-to-face. Our team, and the other growers, work with Rutgers all the time, but it’s good to be able to sit down with other growers and find out if they’re having some of the same problems with pests, or fairy ring, or excessive heat.

Dr. Peter Jeranyama of UMass, who gave a talk on frost.

“I thought it was a good meeting,” says Bill Haines. “I really enjoyed all the presentations, and I thought Dr. Jeranyama was a good addition to the line-up.”

The highlight was the presentation made to Dr. Nick Vorsa, who stepped down as director of the center this summer. ACGA President Shawn Cutts, on behalf of the organization, presented a plaque in appreciation of his many years of outstanding service to New Jersey’s cranberry growers:

“Your excellent and steady leadership as director of the Rutgers Phillip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research has established it as one of the state’s and country’s leading agricultural research centers. The ground-breaking work in breeding and genetics to which you have dedicated your career has transformed the entire cranberry industry by providing growers with the next generations of high-yielding, high-quality varieties. Your leadership, expertise, and friendship have made invaluable contributions to our farms and to our industry for which we will always be grateful.”

Many growers as well as long-time friends and co-workers from the Center spoke as well, expressing their own appreciation for everything Nick has done for the growers, the station, and for the cranberry industry as a whole. “He made it look easy,” says Dr. Peter Oudemans, “but he put in a tremendous amount of work to make us what we are today.”

“It was a good meeting!” Joe Darlington says. “We had very good crop growing science, it was good to see everyone together, the food was very good, and it was an excellent award ceremony for Nick!”

Thank you, as always, to Dr. Cesar Rodriguez-Saona, for putting together another informative program!

Jon Lindbergh: 1932-2021

Longtime Pine Island friend, business partner, and absolute legend Jon Lindbergh has passed away, and we are all the richer for having known him.

The son of aviators Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Jon Lindbergh spent a lot of time in the water from a very early age. Among the many accomplishments listed in the New York Times:

Mr. Lindbergh was one of the world’s earliest aquanauts. He explored the ocean depths, pioneered cave diving and participated in daring underwater recovery missions, including one to find a hydrogen bomb that was lost in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain in 1966.

. . . He went west to college, enrolling at Stanford; after a time he lived alone in a tent a few miles from campus to avoid dorm life. He studied marine biology; started mountain climbing, skydiving and cave diving; and joined the Naval Reserve.

. . . He later farmed salmon in Puget Sound and in Chile as part of an emerging aquaculture industry and sold the fish to airlines and restaurants.

Jon was one of the founders of Cranberries Austral Chile. In 1996, Jon and the other founders invited Bill Haines to become a partner in the company. They remained partners for twenty-five years. Jon was an active and engaged shareholder, and one of his most valuable contributions was helping resolve the issues of water supply.

“While we all knew Jon as an intelligent, kind, humble, gentle, great, and good man, I had no idea he had squeezed so much accomplishment and adventure into one life,” Bill says. “I am honored to have called him my friend and shared in his adventures in Chile.”

“I was lucky – because of Bill – to have sat with Jon at one of our dinners,” says Pine Island Board of Advisors member Rick Goulding. “We had a wonderful and wandering conversation. The man exuded humility and humanity. He had this natural curiosity about everything. A quintessential American. And a man we’ll all miss.”