Harvest’s end – 2019

Our team picked the final bog for 2019 yesterday, bringing this year’s harvest to a close.

It was a tough season, weather-wise, which meant we had to slow down a lot while waiting for color.

While for the most part, we relied on our bog side cleaners, we did return to the old packing house platform to maximize what fruit we could from the younger beds! We also did some experimenting to improve our equipment: “We experimented with grate spacing on the bog side cleaners to eliminate rot and trash, as well as the brush cleaner at the packing house,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann.

We made some changes to our process as well! “We also took an assembly line approach for gathering; now that we have four cleaners we were able to send a team to get the bog ready to go ahead of time, which made the cleaning go more quickly,” Bryan says. “We were able to cover a lot of acres that way.”

Bryan is already getting ready for 2020 by working on some new training procedures ahead of next year’s harvest. And in the meantime, the rest of our team is getting ready for the next big task: the winter flood!

Picking methods

In the time since we launched this site, our team has improved many of our processes in the interests of efficiency. The most visible changes, of course, have been to our harvest methods.

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. It’s a lot more efficient.

GoPro Gates Harrow from Pine Island Cranberry on Vimeo.

With the majority of our older bogs finished, we’re looking to make a strong finish with the harrows in the next week or so!

Harvest equipment prep

Harvest is starting soon, and we are always looking for ways to improve the process!

A few years ago, we began using bogside cleaners during the gathering process to help improve efficiency. Before that, during the harvest, berries were placed on a truck via an elevator. The truck then went to our packing house to unload and prep the berries for the receiving station by removing as much bog debris as possible. The bogside cleaner improved this process by removing the packing house step entirely and removing debris as the berries come out of the bog. 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.

The experiment was successful and now we have four! “It was a long process,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “When we first started considering a berry pump, we went out to Wisconsin and looked at three or four makes of cleaners as well as looking at one owned by [our neighboring growers] the Lees. 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. In practice, this meant changing the 6 inch pump to an 8 inch one, as well as asking them to build it a little higher to make it easier for our trailers; a few small changes, and some significant ones. But they provided us with great service, and came out themselves to help set everything up.”

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. (As Bryan says: “When we placed the order, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.”) One of the issues the team discovered was finding a lot of bog debris in the final product, as well as a diminished ability to remove the wastewater fast enough. “We wanted it to be as efficient as possible,” Bryan says, “so we made some minor changes during the season to remove vines and trash. But it became more labor intensive than it was worth.” So for subsequent orders, 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 the same time, we sent the old cleaning box back and they sent us the new 5 grate design in return. The combo of the new spray boom and an additional cleaning grate provides better quality fruit for the trailer to take directly to the Chatsworth receiving station.

Testing the new machine on a young bog was useful for a couple of reasons. Young beds have yet to develop a dense canopy, and while they often yield fruit, a high percentage of that fruit contains rot. This makes them a good place to test run new equipment immediately pre-harvest. “We may well need to use the packing house platform for beds with high amounts of rot,” says Matt Giberson, “but we’re obviously hoping those will be few and far between!”

Harvest prep – 2019

Harvest is only about a month away, and our team is making sure we’re more than 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 done everything we can at this point and hoping for the best,” says CEO Bill Haines. “Talk to me again in November and I’ll let you know how we made out!”

Sanding changes

Our first core value at Pine Island Cranberry is “get better”: doing everything we do better every day. Part of that is not doing things the way we’ve always done just because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

Our annual sanding project is moving right along, and while the process remains approximately the same, we’re always adjusting the details with an eye to future production.

“We’re actually continuing the process that we did last year,” says manager Mike Haines. “For the past several years we’d moved from sanding one inch to a half-inch, then went back a couple of years ago to to doing an inch on established beds while continuing to do a half-inch on new beds. It can be kind of hard to tell at the end of the first year if there’s a difference, so we keep an eye on it and see if there are any changes in production as well as how healthy the bogs look, and we experimented with a couple of beds at Centennial again in order to make a comparison.”

There are other factors at play as well, Mike says: “When you make sanding changes you need to make changes elsewhere, too, especially with fertilizer. It’ll be interesting to see how this looks once the new beds get to full production. But in the meantime we’re going to keep making decisions based on results rather than following the rule of thumb just for the sake of it.”

We’ve also made some equipment changes! We have new sanders that are slightly bigger and cover more ground more quickly. When the weather is cooperative, we can run three sanding teams and get a lot done. It might take a couple of years to see results, and the best proof will be in the production!

Cleaning line!

This entry was originally posted on September 8, 2017, with a follow-up on October 6, 2017.

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!

Work Anniversary – Ernie Waszkiewicz

Last week marked Facilities/Equipment team member Ernie Waszkiewicz’s ten-year work anniversary at Pine Island!

“Ernie does a lot of field work, a lot of fabricating, a lot with the irrigation systems,” says his manager, Louis Cantafio. “He’s always busy; we need more like him. He has a lot of interesting experience under his belt, and spends time working with the other guys, helping them with stuff when needed. He’s great with getting things going right away; a lot of times when something breaks, it’s something we need right now and getting it into the shop for a lengthy repair just won’t be feasible. So he’s really good at making stuff go now that has to go now, which is great for everyone. He’s also been doing the installs for our ongoing automation project; that’s been three years now. It’s an incredible amount of work: a lot of wiring and a lot of modifying the system to make it all go together. I have nothing but nice things to say; I’m glad when he’s here, and a little nervous when he’s not.” Louis also notes one of his own top priorities: “And I can’t forget: he makes a nice pot of coffee!”

Fellow team members have high praise for Ernie as well: his other shop team members mention his being a great worker as well as a great teammate. “He always bails everyone out when they need to be bailed out,” Coco Mercado says. “If you need help, he’s right there pitching in.” Jeremy Fenstermaker agrees: “Ernie is a great guy to work with, and a great guy to hang out with; He’s always there for you. No matter the situation, he gives his all. He’d give you the sleeveless shirt off of his back. I’m glad to know him as a colleague and a friend!”

“Ernie: the man in black!” says CEO Bill Haines. “Ernie’s a great member of the team. His versatility makes him highly valuable; he’s a mechanic, he’s a welder, he’s a troubleshooter, he does whatever it takes. On frost night, if you need him, he’s there getting stuff going. He’s part of the team that has actually reduced the amount of call-outs we have every night. People don’t have to get out on a frost night because of stuff that’s ready to go, and that’s the way it should be. He’s a big part of that. He shows up every day, and I never have to worry about it. And he gets along with people; I enjoy having him on the team.”

Thanks for everything you do, Ernie!

Equipment: New sander

Sanding, our biggest winter project, continues this week, but we’ve made some changes since the last batch of ice started melting!

We are currently running two sanding teams, and one of them has begun using the new, larger sander, designed to increase our speed and efficiency! We’ve redesigned our sanding plan a couple of times over the years, as we’re always looking at what are the best practices for the crop, and this new machine will help us reach our targets.

“We started thinking about this a couple of years ago when we wanted to increase our sanding practices and cover about a quarter of the farm every year,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “The wintertime can be tough, not knowing what Mother Nature’s going to do to us. So shortening the time to sand while increasing number of acres was a challenge! Our initial thought was to increase the size of the equipment by fifty percent, taking it from 10 feet to 15 feet, but we were leery of the amount of water that would displace and how much we’d be able to flood the bogs, not to mention the mechanical problems it poses. We settled on going twenty percent bigger; it’s patterned after our existing sanders, but 12 feet wide with a bigger hopper. It’s already a huge improvement; with the old sanders, the excavator could fill them in three swings with two buckets of sand and a partial third. This new one takes three good-size bucket loads, and since that’s still only three swings on the excavator, it takes roughly the same amount of time to load but it’s covering 20% more ground. This gives us a 10% net increase in coverage, with our goal being putting another one in operation before we start sanding next year and get a full 20% increase.”

The team is still thinking of ways to increase speed and efficiency, however. Because the sanders can only come up to the dam to for a fresh load of sand, there’s a distance from the ditches at both the beginning and end of the dam which can be missed. “We’ve also purchased a used side-discharge manure spreader to fill in the gaps,” Bryan says. “We’ve retrofitted it to slow it down, then did a fair amount of experimenting and finally came up with something that seems to be working. What we do is we drive it down the dam and it throws sand out the side, roughly 15 to 20 feet. We’ve only just started using it, and the wind affects it quite a bit; it needs a calm day with no ice on the beds.”

While the machine was not running much this week, thanks to the weather, operator Wilfredo Pagan has been very pleased and is very excited about the increased speed and coverage area. And if the weather cooperates, we’re hoping to get some video so you can see it in action!

First snow of 2018

Not sure if anyone’s heard anything about it, but it’s been a bit cold recently and we’ve even had some snow in the region!

The cold has been a struggle even without the snow. “We haven’t been doing any sanding, obviously,” says Matt Giberson. “At least, not until it thaws out, and in order to do that we need a good rain to melt the ice. We’re at least a week or two from that even happening right now.”

The farm ended up getting about ten to twelve inches in yesterday’s storm, and the team did a lot of work beforehand to get ready. “Some of it was already done as part of the usual routine,” says Louis Cantafio. “But we made sure everything was buttoned up. And in this cold, we’re trying to warm stuff up longer, but otherwise it’s steady as she goes.”

Wednesday was all about storm prep. “We’ve been keeping an eye on the models but you never know what you’re going to get,” said Matt. “We could get anything from one to four inches to one to four feet. But we’re getting the loaders ready and will drop them off with Junior, Wilfredo, Caesar, and Joel so when it hits we can start clearing immediately.” Water, of course, is always our top priority. “The winter flood is on everywhere, and we’ve got all the wells shut down. But it’s been a struggle because of the ice forming; it’s hard to judge what the natural stream is when everything freezes up on us. We’ll keep breaking any ice forming when the snow and the wind blowing into the gates, but we’ll see.”

Our team is also doing as little work outside as possible. “We’re keeping the guys inside because it’s going to be brutal for next couple days. When it warms up we can do outside work on the dams, but when it’s 3 degrees out it limits our outdoor work,” Matt says. “So we’ll keep everyone indoors until the temperature rises a little; we’ll work on sprinklers, build gates, do some clean up, get the camp ready for next year when the seasonal guys come back.”

It’s not easy, but our team will keep doing whatever it takes, whatever the weather!

Reel method

With fewer acres to pick due to the late-holds as well as our ongoing renovation projects, we’re typically only running two picking crews this year rather than the usual three. The majority will be picked with the Gates Harrow, though a limited number of older bogs will still be harvested using the reel method.

The Gates Harrow is 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. But there are still older beds in the center of the farm that are easier to pick using the former method. (This goes for gathering as well; while the bog side cleaner remains in use, the crew instead uses the box trucks instead of tractor trailers, as the dams there simply are not wide enough.)

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, as newer varieties typically have a greater yield. 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 basic process actually is fairly simple: water reels, or “beaters” are used to stir up the water in the bogs. The berries are dislodged, or “knocked”, from the vines and float to the surface of the water. The machines are slowly rolled into the water and the wheels are lined up against each other, but not in a straight line. Initially, a crew member will walk the bog ahead of the edge harvester, which is smaller and lighter than the other harvesting machines in order to maneuver more easily near the ditches.

While this method is slower than the Gates Harrow, our team is still able to get quite a lot accomplished!