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.”