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!

New cleaning line – follow-up

Last month in the run-up to harvest we went over some equipment modifications at our berry platform! This week, COO Bryan vonHahmann gave us a brief update on its performance so far.

“We didn’t use it as much early on because we were learning about what it will improve and what it’ll make worse,” Bryan says. “We have a lot of young beds coming into production over the next few years, so finding out what works and what doesn’t is going to be crucial.” Young beds have less canopy cover and thus are more prone to rot issues, but the amount of usable fruit on even a three year bed can make a huge difference.

“What we found out during the early run is that if the fruit is soft, the cleaning line can actually damage it. So we have to be aware of that and calculate the optimal timing for running the fruit through,” Bryan says. “The upside is, we’re getting good results. So far we’ve achieved up to 50% improvement on the berries we put through. If the fruit’s at the right stage of firmness/quality, it does run more slowly than what we‘re used to, but we knew that it would be. We don’t anticipate running all our fruit through it, so it’s doing just fine.”

The new line will be running again shortly, Bryan says. “Next week we’ll be picking beds in the center of the farm that we can’t get tractor trailers to, so we have to send in the old trucks.”

“We think it has a place in our operation, and we’re looking to make modifications based on what we learn this year.”

Pine Island Team Profiles: Larry Wedemeyer

Well-maintained, consistently available equipment and facilities that are fully operational are instrumental to Pine Island’s daily efficiency and the success of our operation, and our Facilities and Equipment team is one of the best around! This week, we welcomed a new member of our Equipment team: Larry Wedemeyer stepped up to fill the welder position.

Larry hasn’t worked in agriculture before, but is looking forward to the challenge. “I’m a fabricator by trade; I like to build things with my hands,” he says. “I like being able to make something out of nothing.” He went to school through the military in Aberdeen, Maryland, and got certified through the Navy two years ago. Originally from Freehold and now a resident of Browns Mills, moving to the area has been a bit of a culture shock! (Though we probably can’t sway him to root for the Phillies or the Eagles, we will eventually manage to get him to say “pork roll” instead of “Taylor ham”, and are feeling fairly confident that he too will eventually be ordering “wooder ice”, just like the rest of us.) There’s a lot of work to catch up with, but Larry is ready: “They’re going to have me on anything and everything; whatever they throw at me, I’ll fix.”

Manager Louis Cantafio was impressed with Larry’s commitment to the community as a member of his local fire department. “Any position here is a tough position to have open, and this one’s been open for a while. What I liked about Larry was that even though he was between jobs, he was still volunteering in his community. I know that volunteer departments require a lot of training and a lot of time giving back, and that spoke to his character. And his chief gave him a great recommendation.”

COO Bryan vonHahmann is also pleased to see Larry having a good start. “We clearly saw that he had the talent for welding and he had a lot of enthusiam, so that was all good. When he toured the shop, he looked at the welding area and asked if we minded if he changed some things around for better organization. That was encouraging, because it meant he’s someone who takes pride in what they do and ownership of his work area.” Bryan’s also seen some of his work and says it looks fantastic. “He’s starting with some of the irrigation work, and then we’re going to pick up with some of the harvest equipment. We’re building two new blower tractors, which will require some new design work because they’re a different model.”

We’re looking forward to see what Larry does with them, and will be sure to keep you posted!

Spring updates – 2017

The team is keeping very busy this month, as always!

Bog renovation is going well, with the new irrigation going in at Mule Island in preparation for planting. “We’ll be putting in the Mullica Queen variety,” says manager Mike Haines. “It’s a later variety, like the Stevens it’s replacing, so it should be a good fit.” A later variety means they attain their full color later in the season. Per Rutgers, “Mullica Queen offers excellent yield potential with equal or higher color than Stevens,” and while we currently only have one Mullica Queen bed that’s attained full growth, it’s been a highly productive one.

The reno team has also been working on erosion control, which is always an ongoing concern.

Things have been hectic this week with frost, of course, but that should be slowing down a bit. “It’s been a busy frost week, which we knew was coming,” says Matt Giberson. “But it’s looking like that will lighten up for a little while.”

Unfortunately, part of the reason we’re expecting less frost is due to the expected heavy rains this weekend. But our equipment team is making sure the Crisafulli pumps are ready to go if needed, and dam maintenance is ongoing in order to minimize the risk of washouts!

Equipment – Spring 2017

A coyple of weeks ago we outlined Pine Island’s spring targets. This week, we spoke with some members of the equipment team for a little more detail on their particular projects!

“We have the sand screener in this week for preventative maintenance,” says team member Coco Mercado. “We’re checking the bearings and greasing everything, putting in a new screen in because there were holes in the old one…we’re fixing anything major so in the field they don’t have problems with it.” This is important, because the sand we use for this project needs to be as pure as possible in order to prevent soil compaction (which can restrict water and limit growth) so we screen it before using it on the barge to take out any clay, stones, or other debris which could cause problems. “Since they got a little ahead with the screening, now’s the perfect time to bring it in,” Coco says. “If we work on it now, when they need it again they don’t have to wait, they can just get moving. We’re just waiting for a few parts to come in and it’ll be back out there!”

Other ongoing shop projects include a revamp of the debris trucks that we use in conjunction with our bog side cleaners.

“We had some issues during the last harvest season because the trucks were getting a little top heavy,” says team member Fred Henschel. “We’re going to knock a foot off to help with that. I’m cutting the original ones apart and making them more like the newer ones with the exposed sides and and painting them all to match. Very similar to the original trucks, but a foot shorter in hopes of them being easier to control; there was so much weight hanging off the back that it grew really difficult for the drivers to steer once the trucks filled up. We’re modifying a couple other little things such as changing the way doors are hinged so if something gets stuck, it’ll be easier to access. Whatever we can do to make it easier, better. And in addition to fixing the original four, we’re building three more brand new ones!”

The next phase in our automation program is also underway just in time for the upcoming frost season! Pump automation has been a boon to our operation. Field data is sent wirelessly to a master controller, which continuously communicates with the network of devices, sending commands to turn on engines and pumps when needed. It gives our team a lot more control: the computer actually handles a lot of the start-up and shut-down process, which is what usually takes up a big chunk of the time an operator is out there running water, either during frost or heat. It also helps us reduce our fuel cost and wear and tear on vehicles as well as protecting that most crucial resource for a cranberry operation: water!