Dam widening project

This year, one of our long-term ongoing projects is at last near completion: widening our dams and building turnarounds for easier travel during harvest. On a cranberry farm, dams serve two purposes: to detain the water used for irrigation and water management, and for vehicle use. Dam maintenance is highly important for both safety and equipment. Widening dams makes hauling easier, especially since some parts of the operation are quite a distance from our cleaning platform.

Now, instead of several trucks carrying two boxes, we can use a tractor trailer that carries nine and won’t need to use as many trucks. It will be more efficient for both the gathering team and the packing house platform, as well as freeing up team members to be elsewhere if we need them. We’ve planned it out so there’s a route where they can gather the bogs off one dam in order to widen as few turns as possible. It also makes room for new equipment like our bog side cleaners and our Gates Harrow harvesters.

“We’re very close to being done,” says bog renovations manager Steve Manning. “Mostly the gates are all done and we’re just moving dirt for now. It’s a lot easier when we’re doing an active reno because we’re already doing so much redesigning, but we’re trying to get a little ahead of that for future renovations by moving pump houses and shifting some other things around so we don’t have to do it later.” The most difficult part is working with the irrigation, especially in the summertime when heat can be an issue, but this week the weather worked in our favor. “You wouldn’t think this wet weather would help, but we got a lot done.”

“We have Sim Place, the lake, and the west side of 563 all done,” says operations manager Matt Giberson. “Now we’re working the middle, which has the most acreage, and is also the most complicated because of all the old bogs and their various shapes.” Back when the farm was founded, the bogs were dug by hand, so many of the older parts of the farm were designed by necessity to work around the topography. “We drove around a lot to look at everything and think about it for a while,” Matt says. “We’ve been working on this final stage over the last year, and should be done by harvest. We’ve tried to time it with the rain so we don’t have to worry about a heat run or irrigation run during gate installation. And we’ve been thinking ahead to when we renovate in 10 or 15 years down the road. We may end up adding some turnaround spots as we go, since during harvest we ideally want to be able to work from any corner we can. But as of right now, we’re looking to be ready by this year’s harvest.”

Planting – July 2018

Pine Island has finished the planting for the year, and everything went very well! “We planted approximately 25 acres in May and about another 25 at the beginning of July,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “I think that’s going to be about what we currently planned for next year’s planting, as well.”

There are two methods of planting: conventional propagation, which means pressing mowed vines or prunings directly into the bogs to be established; and rooted cuttings, which means planting plants with roots already established. Pine Island has used both methods in the past, but mainly we’ve moved on to using rooted cuttings. Another concern with planting is implementing an irrigation program, both with ground water and sprinklers, that provides moisture for vine growth without causing excessive soil saturation, which can lead to favorable conditions for phytopthora, which in turn can lead to fruit or root rot. Pine Island uses both ditches and sprinklers for irrigation. During the early spring, after the winter flood is removed, irrigation is usually covered by our frost protection program. However, concerns for adequate soil moisture should not be forgotten during frost season. Several warm, sunny days without rain or frost irrigation can result in the need for irrigation. Checking the soil yourself is extremely important; tensiometers are good, but it’s important to learn the hands-on method, as well.

The process remains the same: rooted cuttings are taken from the cart and loaded onto the planter. Team members seated on the planter drop the vines into the carousel and then the vines are distributed into the pre-dug furrow. The planter is followed by other crew members, who make sure that the vines have been placed correctly. Running the planting operation is a true challenge: coordinating everything, getting the right plants at the right time with the right people, constantly adjusting the planters, and identifying problems and how to fix them.

“Planting went really well this year,” Bryan says. “We’re continuing to learn and finding some better ways to do things, as well as making adjustents to try next year.” For instance, instead of dropping the empty plant trays along the route and having someone come along to do clean-up, this year we built a basket for the front of the tractor so when the team done with the trays, they’re all in one place and at the end of the row the trays are removed, which saves the team some time.

Planned changes for next year include working on the irrigation installation. “We continue to struggle with the timing,” Bryan says. “We usually install the Webster valves ahead of time so we can pull them out, plant, and put them back in so we can water the new beds. But it’s inevitable that the planter hits some of them, so next year we’re going to try installing after we finish the planting. That’ll mean more people, though, so we’ll see.”

Other than that, he says, “it was pretty much steady as she goes! Matt Stiles normally manages the planting but this year he had Mike Scullion as a trainee. Going forward, Mike will probably be managing that team, which is a good thing.” The main drawback was the weather, but the team made adjustments as necessary. “It was really tough with the heat,” Bryan says. “We were getting 95 and 96 degree days, so we’d start at 5 and end at 2:30 to beat it a little, but that takes a toll on anyone!”

Board of Advisors – June 2018

This week it was once again time for PICC’s quarterly Board of Advisors meeting at our main office! The Board of Advisors meets to review the financials, the operating plan, personnel, and to evaluate strategy. CEO Bill Haines has always tried to incorporate a field trip at every meeting, and this time around, he decided to make it the top agenda item!

The morning started in our meeting room with brief introductory remarks by COO Bryan vonHahmann, who in turn introduced Manager of Operations Matt Giberson to the group. Matt then gave the board a little bit of his background as well as an outline of his typical day, making sure people and equipment need to be where they need to be when they need to be there! Board members took full advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and learn as much as they could about a part of the operation they don’t usually see.

Next on the office program was Jeremy Fenstermaker, who took board members through his office set-up and demonstrated how he maps out and designs irrigation systems.

And after that, it was off to see the rest of our team in action! Bill mapped out a comprehensive route that took our visitors through every stage of our current projects. First, we stopped at some of our new production at different growth stages, where everyone had a chance to listen to Matt Stiles talk about bog design, planting, and early growth, as well the various solutions we’ve tried for drainage.

Then, we went to the latest renovation acreage, where everyone not only got a close-up look at the ongoing work, but was also able to get a spectacular panoramic view as well as see Jeremy’s design in person.

The board then took a quick look at part of our forestry project, took a drive by the Marucci Center where so much great research is being done, and finished the tour in grand style by visiting Pine Island’s latest acquisition!

Pine Island has recently bought back some of the acreage known as the Birches (originally purchased by our founder, Martin L. Haines, in the late 19th century) and plans to do some experimenting with different growing methods! The board visited one of the bogs we’re planning to harvest in the fall, then toured the packing house, which still houses an old-school cranberry sorter.

Then it was back to the office for lunch and to review the financials!

It was a perfect day to be outside, and the board enjoyed themselves. It’s always great to show off our beautiful property, and we’re looking forward to the next meeting!

Water drawdown – 2018

Spring finally appears to be hanging in there, which means it’s time to start removing the winter flood! We’ve said it so often you can probably recite it with us by now: good water management is absolutely critical to growing cranberries. Growers rely on a clean, abundant supply to maintain the bogs year round. The key question, as everyone here knows by heart, is “Where is the water coming from, and where do you want it to go?”

Once the harvest is over, the bogs are flooded in order to protect the cranberry vines from the winter weather. When the warmer weather sets in, the bogs are drained so that the dormant vines awaken for the growing season; while cranberries are most frequently harvested using the “wet pick” method, they do not actually grow under water and thus need to go through the same growing cycle as any other fruit crop. The process, which we call “dumping water” is deceptively simple: a team member takes a gate hook (pictured below) and removes the boards that have been placed across the gate in the bog. (The boards are removed in a specific pattern to work with gravity and the natural flow of the water.) Once the boards have been pulled and placed on top of the gate, the water moves to the next bog along the ditches. This water returns to the reservoirs and canals in order to be reused for the next part of the cycle. It takes about 24 hours to drain completely.

“We started the early draw the last week of March, but we decided to put it back on again in some of the Crimson Queen beds,” says Matt Giberson. “We decided we’re going to leave those on later this year, due to issues last year with them getting overripe. But the TAcy was right where it we needed to be so we thought we’d leave the water on to help with rot prevention.” (TAcy is an acronym for “total anthocyanin concentration” and is a unit of color measurement used in a cranberry.) The drawdown started in earnest on the first of April. “We’re shooting for 6 to 7 systems a day by the 25th because we’re going to start planting Cedar Swamp on the 23rd,” Matt says. He’s also trying to balance the needs of the frost team: “I’m trying to keep the focus on the home farm and leave Sim Place till last,” he says. “Sim Place is always a cold spot, so if we don’t have to make someone drive over there for frost I feel better. This week we’re working on the center of the home farm and west of Route 563 this week, and from there we’ll hit the systems at Red Road and Caley before we move on to Sim Place.”

After the water comes off, team member Waldy Blanco goes out with his crew to install sprinklers and make sure the irrigation systems are 100% by turning on the system and letting it run for a while. Then they’ll clean out the nozzles, see where we need to make repairs, and turn the system back on to make sure the repairs worked. Running the system for a bit also helps the team make sure that any potential engine problems are taken care of by the Facilities/Equipment team. It’s important for this to be done as soon as possible for frost protection. Typically, a cranberry bog is built at a lower level than the land immediately surrounding it and the bog temperature can drop ten to fifteen degrees lower than the uplands. These conditions make monitoring bog temperature a top priority once the winter water comes off, which is why installing sprinklers quickly and efficiently is so important.

Right now, the weather appears to be cooperating, and everything seems to be on track for the cold nights coming up in the next week or so!

ACGA Winter Meeting 2018

This week the American Cranberry Growers Association once again held its annual winter meeting. The ACGA winter meeting is always a good opportunity for growers to listen to research findings from experiments during the previous growing season and the researchers’ recommendations for the 2018 growing season. In addition, it’s a great chance for the local cranberry community to catch up to each other after the busy harvest season.

This year, the attendees from Pine Island were Mike Haines, Matt Giberson, Matt Stiles, and Justin Ross, and all of them found the presentations useful and informative. The top presentation for all four of them was the work being done by Jennifer Johnson-Cicalese on new varieties. “Jennifer’s was my favorite this time,” says Mike. “Improving rot resistance will keep the industry as viable as possible in NJ, and it sounds like they’re making progress on that.” Matt Giberson agrees: “That’s most important for our needs. If she finds out a way to produce a new variety with lower rot, it can really help us.”

Everyone was also interested in the report by Peter Oudemans on heat, with Matt being especially interested in the use of fake berries with heat sensors to measure internal temperature. It was also his first chance to hear from Thierry Besançon. “I’m glad he’s working on the red root issue,” Matt says. “We can see from Red Road how the different treatments are working, and it looks like he’s been making good progress.”

The final presentation of the day was the safety talk, delivered by someone other than Ray Samulis for the first time any of us can remember. “It was weird not having Ray there!” Matt says. “George did a good job though; that was good info on new regulations throughout the year and I was glad to see we’re a little ahead of the game with our current training program.”

“I thought it was a great meeting,” says Matt Stiles. “All of the presenters did a great job conveying useful information to us that we will be able to use throughout the growing season.” He is also grateful to everyone that helped put it together. So a huge thank you, as always to Dr. Cesar Rodriguez-Saona for yet another fantastic program! Cesar does a ton of work on this every year in addition to his research, and we’re all grateful for the opportunity.

“This was a great learning experience,” says newer Pine Island team member Justin Ross. “There’s a lot of good stuff going on and a lot of energy in the industry.”

New cleaning line

Last week we talked about how our team was prepping for harvest, including some equipment modifications. This week, we take a look at the changes to our cleaning facility! Up until now, our cleaning line at the packing house removes trash, debris, leaves, and so forth; however, it does not remove rotten fruit. But our Facilities team is hard at work on upgrades.

“With the standards changing in fruit quality, Ocean Spray is starting to dock growers for any rot amount greater than 20%, and we get charged the cleaning fee,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “If the rot percentage goes over 40%, they won’t even take it. We already know that that in the early years in our young beds, it’s easy to get a lot of rot because the canopy isn’t well developed. But we still get some good fruit from them. So what we decided to do was get an analysis on the good fruit from those young beds and see what they were worth. Once we did the math, we found it was a relatively short payback for us to put in brush washers to push the rotten fruit out. The blowers on the line take the leaves off and dry the fruit some, but rot still goes into the trailer. Our bog side cleaners are a definite improvement on that but even those can’t handle the high rot beds. So we modified our current facility to put in a four-roller brush system in.”

“Our goal is to keep the rot percentage as low as possible,” Bryan says. “In a bed with 25% rot, for example, we’d hope to remove 10%. If we have a bed that’s at 45, we can knock 20% out; we’d need to pay the fee but still send out the good crop. Now that we’re renovating so heavily it’s worth the investment.”

“We’re working hard to have it ready,” says manager Louis Cantafio. “The equipment arrived the second week of August, but we tried to get all the prep work done ahead of that. It’s all the same stuff they’re running up at the receiving station; so we didn’t really need to build anything new. Bryan did the research and ordered the equipment; my team found some equipment we could purchase used and save some money on the project. We started ordering materials so we could be ready to go when the equipment arrived, and we’ve been going gangbusters ever since!”

“The fruit goes through the line as usual, but then it goes into the table so that it can be spread into one layer and move through the cleaner,” explains Facilities supervisor Mike Guest. “If the berries are packed too close together it won’t work. All the rest of the work on the line are just to accommodate these additions.”

The new line will be done in plenty of time for the harvest, and we’re all looking forward to the results!

Joan Davenport – summer 2017

Our team just finished another productive follow-up visit with soil scientist Dr. Joan Davenport! Joan comes to see us in the spring during the bloom period and again in the height of summer to discuss fertilizer needs for bud set. “At this point in the growing season, we are evaluating the plants to complete the grown season and support next year’s crop. To do this, I look at the crop load, the presence and quantity of buds, the length and color of the new upright growth, the color of last growing season’s leaves. This season’s new leaves should be green and the old (last year’s) leaves just starting to turn pale. Larger crop loads indicate higher N[itrogen] demand. There should be visible buds and few to no uprights actively growing, plus few to no runners present,” Joan says.

“In May it’s the beginning of the growing season, so she’s basically helping us make nutrition decisions for the highest demand time of year, bloom and fruit set,” says manager Mike Haines. “She’s here to help make sure we get this crop growing nice and healthy.” For this, Joan looks at hook, the length and color of the new upright growth, and the amount and color of old leaves, including looking for leaves from two growing seasons ago.

‘This time of year we’re looking at recommendations for bud set fertilizer,” Mike says. “We have to make sure the plants have enough to maintain the fruit as it finishes sizing up before harvest, but also that the plants set buds for next year’s crop. So at all times, we’re thinking about this year and the next, but that’s it goes with a perennial crop; all the years are related.” A follow-up visit is always useful for the team. “After we start to implement her recommendations, we do adjust as needed based on observation; stuff always happens that we don’t expect. At Sim Place, we sanded a lot of beds this year for the first time ever, and it’s pretty mucky soil out there. The sand seemed to really stimulate growth even more than we would have wanted in some places, so we cut back on fertilizer there. Conversely, on the home farm at Boricua, we have new plants but it’s really sandy. The water drains pretty quickly and there’s not a lot of organic matter in the soil so we added much more fertilizer than we originally planned to there.”

“It’s going to take eyes on the beds,” Joan says. “But here, there are always eyes on the beds.” And as always, our PIICM team is out doing whatever it takes to make sure our growing season gives us good results!

Safety milestone

Safety is one of our ever-present goals at Pine Island Cranberry, and our team has regular meetings to keep everyone updated and to issue any necessary equipment.

We also like to celebrate when our team hits important targets, and this month Pine Island has once again made it over a year accident-free!

“Safety is very important to us at Pine Island; it is an obligation we all share,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “Our team operates large, powerful equipment – sometimes in inclement weather and tough situations, so they have to be safety conscious at all times, for themselves and fellow workers. We want our employees to go home at the end of the day in the same condition they came: that is, healthy and free from injury. Their families count on this! We continually discuss the value of safety to instill the behaviors that promote working safely.”

Prevention, of course, is a top concern. “The best way to keep everyone accident-free is to be proactive in setting up an environment that’s conducive to safety in the first place,” says Mike Haines. “Maintaining the dams, the equipment, the buildings; that means we’ll keep to a minimum any unexpected events that can lead to an injury. Making sure everyone is provided hardhats, ear protection, and gloves ensures that they’ll have them when they need them, and so does wearing them at any time an accident could happen. A lot of things happen before that ultimately lead to accident or injury or whatever, so staying on top of those little things helps make sure a bigger thing doesn’t occur.”

Safety training doesn’t just happen in the field, either! “The instructional videos on safety that Debra [Signorelli, our office admin] provides for our workers has insured the safety of our team,” says Matt Giberson. “The videos have helped seasonal workers understand the importance of chemical application. Debra is currently looking at additional training videos that will continually improve the safety around the farm. Another practice that we have put forth in recent years is the importance of head protection via hard hats. With the renovation process at full steam ahead, our team is around a lot of heavy machinery. So the use of hard hats and proper training of our operators has helped provide a safer working environment for all.”

Matt Stiles attributes a good record to good everyday practices. “Even if it’s a routine job, we always take the time to make sure we’re doing it right,” he says. “We’re careful with everything we do. And it’s not just the managers; guys like Juan Carlos and Jonathan and Israel make sure everyone is properly equipped and really keep a close eye out to make sure we’re all doing what we need to do.”

“I’m very proud that we kept all of our folks safe for a full year,” says Louis Cantafio. “In an operation as large as ours, with ‘whatever it takes!’ as our starting point, it can be very difficult for each of us to keep ourselves safe: ‘if I just reach a little further; if I just yank a little harder; if I just go little faster; if I just try a little harder; if I just do whatever it takes!’ We have all done it. We will all do it again. Real success, team safety, comes when we work to keep each other safe. ‘Let me help you with that; let me come with you when you pull boards at night or break ice; don’t forget forgot your safety glasses; back away while I raise this load.’ We have all managed to do it together for a full year. We will all come in tomorrow and work at doing it again. Great job on everyone’s part! Way to keep each other safe!”

CEO Bill Haines is especially pleased, and as a reward, we all got to go home a little early last week! “The team is working long hard days to get stuff done, just like all of us. And it’s a credit to them that they’ve done it safely and everyone goes home at the end of the day healthy,” he says.

Congratulations on another job well done, guys!

Frost – modernization

Thanks to a warm spring, our team only just had their first full night of frost this season. One of the toughest things cranberry growers do is managing springtime frost conditions. In the spring, there is a danger to the crop when the temperature drops. Typically, a cranberry bog is built at a lower level than the land immediately surrounding it and the bog temperature can drop ten to fifteen degrees lower than the uplands. These conditions make monitoring bog temperature a top priority once the winter water comes off. It’s no exaggeration to say there would be no crop if we didn’t watch for frost on the bogs.

“Mike [Haines] does the scouting and gauges each bog based on growth, and we base our temperature threshold on that growth,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. Because many of the plants weren’t so far along, the threshold was a lot lower, so the team didn’t have to run frost much until two nights ago. “I think we got a little rusty, because we haven’t done it in so long. Matt [Giberson] took precautions, though, and started all the systems at 2 the night before to make sure they were still working and everything was good.”

The first step is monitoring the temperature. Each bog has a thermometer (usually located in the coldest section) that requires frequent checking throughout the first part of the night. Once the temperature drops to between 33 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the stage of growth), it’s time to turn on the pumps. More than forty years ago we used to flood the bogs to prevent frost damage; we now use sprinklers instead. When the water from the sprinklers freezes on the vines, it controls the temperature well enough to keep them from harm. It’s also necessary to check the surrounding reservoirs and canals to make sure that the water supply is sufficient to supply the pumps. That can take some time, and doesn’t always need to be done all at once. Depending on location and conditions–is the bog surrounded by woods? Where is the wind coming from? Is the sky clear or overcast?–some will be started earlier than others.

Fortunately, our ongoing automation process is helping make this easier. “We have roughly 50 Joe Lord thermometers out there and probably 80 to 90 analog thermometers,” Bryan says. In some bogs, there is one of each type. “The automated thermometer gives us the initial indication that the temperature is dropping. When it hits the first threshold, it sends the notification, and Matt sends out 3 to 4 guys to look at the analog thermometers. When the 2nd alarm goes off he’s probably calling more people.” We haven’t maximized everything the new system can do for us yet, but as Bryan says, “We’re slowly walking into the technology.” The goal, of course, is to fully automate the system, and we’re getting there! Even with only partial automation we’re already increasing our efficiency as well as saving wear and tear on equipment.

Once the pumps all started, though, the work isn’t over. The next thing is making sure all the sprinklers are working correctly. This means driving around to check they’re running at full capacity. It may also sometimes be necessary to repair the sprinklers, as they won’t run at full capacity if something is blocking the line. This happens more frequently when the systems first start running, and becomes less of an issue after a few cold nights.

“The really interesting thing is seeing how air patterns and flow truly affect temperature,” Bryan says. “One end of a bog could be 34 and the other end at 39, so in some cases we might not start an adjacent system in order to limit water we put on beds to avoid rot. At the same time, though, the beds need the frost protection or we don’t get a crop at all.” It’s a delicate balance and takes some decision making. “Today people are out scouting to check damage; we did get some, but feel the plants will grow out of it. So we’ll work on refining our process, set the threshold at a higher temp as the plants grow and need more protection. A warm spring might have us out of practice, but it’s been good!”

Bog renovation 2017 – updates!

Bog renovation has been ongoing since last fall, with 80 acres as our goal for 2017 and 107 acres in 2018.

Our bog renovation team has made some changes to our process this year! “This time, what we’re trying to do is renovate one complete system at a time,” explains COO Bryan vonHahmann. “We’re going to complete a whole system, then go on to the next system, complete that one, and so on. We’re trying to structure our completion date with when Abbott can get us plants, as soon as possible.” That means the team should finish the first system, including planting, by mid-May. “We’re going to put the plants in early, see how they do, then we’re just going to keep going every month,” Bryan says. “During our last reno we planted 60 acres in a month, which is a lot of work. Planting in the heat is pretty stressful on the crew, as well, so trying to do it in one week intervals instead as well as moving the timing helps with that, too.”

There have also been some challenges with this year’s project! “Since we tried to do as much renovation through the wintertime as possible, we have problems with reservoirs being high and bogs being flooded around the ones we’re renovating,” Bryan says. “The water comes through dams and gets into bogs we’re trying to work on. We bought a new pump last year, which runs 24/7 just to keep bogs we’re working in drained.”

Another challenge was staffing: many team members take well-deserved time off in the winter, so between vacation schedules and our usual winter sanding going at full steam, our team just did what they could to keep the reno bogs dry. Our team is also building some new tools for renovation, which should help us improve how we install underdrain, “We designed and built a new plow to help us remove dirt and help put underdrain in, which should also help a lot,” Bryan says. “We’re trying to do more of our own stuff instead of using subcontractors.”

One of Pine Island’s strength is that our team doesn’t keep doing something just because that’s the way we’ve always done it, and we’re looking forward to seeing how this new approach to renovation works!