Installing gates

This entry was originally posted on January 16, 2015.

Renovation on some of the bogs in the Black Rock system is going well! Last week we spoke briefly again about Pine Island’s #1 question: “where is the water coming from, and where do we want it to go?” This week, our team addressed that question by starting the removal of wooden floodgates and replacing them with our newer PVC gate design.

Longtime team member Wilfredo Pagan (35 years!) is in charge of this operation, which is going very smoothly considering the unexpected weather. “Pipe gates are better,” he says. “They’re easier to install, and they last longer, too.” First, though, he has to set up the laser level in order to make sure the gate is set up correctly. The team will be able to put the new gate in at the same depth as the old one. This is where they have to be careful; if it’s not even the two parts of the new gate can shift over time since they’re not one solid piece of pipe. “Once you put them together, the only thing holding them is dirt and pressure,” Wilfredo says. “If you have a situation where the canal is deeper than the ditch, you have to measure at the top of the dam and set it so the uprights are level with it. If the canal is lower than bog and you don’t adjust for it, it can wash out underneath.”

In the meantime, Junior Colon has been on the excavator making sure the water’s been blocked off in both the canal and the ditches. “Once that’s blocked off, we can start digging,” he says.

After the water is stopped, it’s time to start digging up the dam. “We go right down to the top of the boards on the old gate,” says Junior, “and then we have to continue to dig behind it to get the turf out and make sure the water’s all gone.”

Once the excavator clears out the dirt around the old gate, it’s time to lift each side one at a time to put the chains on for easier lifting.

The old gate then gets lifted onto a waiting tractor and hauled away.

Once the new gate is installed, the team will fill the dirt back and then haul in turf to patch the sides before crowning the dam and moving on to the next gate!

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!

Autumn tasks

While getting the crop in is our #1 priority at Pine Island every autumn, our team is also hard at work on other important tasks through the harvest season and beyond!

Bog Renovation manager Steve Manning has been busy with the current stages of our reno program. “Most recently we’ve been out working on the next stage at Cedar Swamp,” Steve says. “We got about 3.5 inches of rain over the weekend, so we’ve had to spend some time fixing washouts. But we’re also getting ready to put down the underdrain as well as shoring up the sides of the new dams to help prevent erosion. Next week we’ll start putting gates in again.” With only two harvest crews running, he also has the help of stalwart team members Junior Colon, Wilfredo Pagan, Harry Mick, and Bob Heritage, as well Jeremy Fenstermaker to pitch in with the irrigation layout.

New Production manager Mike Haines is also pretty busy. “We took all the sprinklers out of the new beds a week ago after we got a decent amount of rain,” he says. “The main thing is preparing for all the the post-harvest stuff to improve things for next year.” This mainly means working on drainage improvement; water management, as always, is a top priority for our entire team. “We’ve gotten away from interior ditches in the past couple years and moved to drainage tile, or underdrain,” Mike says. “But last spring we decided to try putting in some trenches, and we’re going to try putting in some more this year. We’ll see if that helps. Trenches help get surface water off a lot more than drain tile did.” He’s expecting a trencher to arrive Monday, and our equipment team is also building one in-house. “I did a survey after the rain, because it was biggest storm all year,” he says. “The young beds generally held up pretty well. A couple of big washouts, which had Steve kind of disappointed. . .but I think it would have been a lot worse without the work he’s already been putting in.”

Other tasks include doing some raking in the bogs that got a little growth, and then working on this year’s sanding plan. And in the meantime, we’re going to finish bringing in those berries!

Fertilizer application – spring 2017

Fertilizer applications have begun; it’s officially the growing season! The amount of fertilizer we apply to each bed is determined by variety, soil conditions, and past practices, requiring constant evaluation of current conditions, history, and trends. Nutritional needs are also different for young vines as opposed to established plantings.

Additional nutrition is necessary because while cranberries have adapted (and thrive) in their native sandy soil, nutrients are taken from the bog through the harvest of fruit. “We’re at the roughneck stage right now for almost everything, and that means a lot of top growth as well as root growth, which in turn means the extra nutrition is necessary,” says manager Mike Haines. The three main elements usually added for nutrition are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and the team based their decisions on tissue samples, and last year’s yield. According to cranberries.org: “Cranberry plant demand for nitrogen is highest during three stages of the lifecycle critical to cranberry development–early growth, fruit set and bud set. Early growth is when the plant grows vegetatively through vining and root growth and produces a flush of new leaves. Fruit set is when the flower becomes pollinated and fruit begin to form. Soon after fruit set comes bud set when nitrogen is needed for both fruit development and production of the next year’s flower bud.”

In addition to aerial methods (as always, expertly done by Downstown Aero Crop Service) our team has also tried “fertigation”: a uniform application via irrigation system.

However, our team has decided to discontinue the practice for now. “We first tried it two years ago and ramped it up last year,” Mike says. “But with our current irrigation layout, it’s just not a fit at this point.” Instead, we’ll also make our usual applications via the new buggy method introduced last year!

Our team was really pleased with the results last year. We looked at the ones our neighbors were all using, which all have hopper spreaders, and decided we wanted something even more precise. So we added an air system with individual nozzles, and made improvements over the winter based on last year’s performance as well as modifying it for liquid application as well as dry.

Our team is also making sure the conditions are optimal: “We’re going to irrigate tonight, because it’s been so hot and dry,” Mike says. “We want to get that water into the soil so the plants can access those nutrients.”

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!

Spring Targets – 2017

The weather today is perfect for a blog update on our targets for this spring!

. . . Well, it’s giving us something to look forward to, anyway. Our team is currently finishing up their winter tasks and preparing for the growing season, and so far, things are going well.

“We’ve already taken the water off the beds that are in either their first or second growing season,” says CEO Bill Haines. “We’ve also made good progress this winter on renovation thanks to mild weather, and are hoping to be ahead of schedule so we can begin work on the new renovation project. Sanding is on track; we’ll finish within a week, then start taking water off the established beds as well as start getting irrigation set up and removing swan strings. We’re going to continue to get the dams ready for use of the semis.”

As always, fruit rot is an ongoing concern. “Mike and his team are thinking hard and talking with the scientists at Rutgers and Ocean Spray to see what we can do to better control rot,” Bill says. “We’ve had increased rot for past couple years while standards from the market are higher and higher, so that’s important for us to work on. We’re also looking into improving our equipment; we want to prevent rot altogether, but with either additional equipment or improved equipment we can also try removing rot before delivering to Ocean Spray.” And, of course, our renovation program is expected to assist with this. “We have an entirely new system that we upgraded last year; we’re trying a different layout as well as different sprinkler heads to see if we can improve coverage. We’re also going to work on modifying one of our buggies as a prototype for doing ground coverage as part of rot control.”

“Mainly I’ve been doing a lot of prepwork,” says ICM manager Mike Haines. “Once it gets busier I’d rather not make decisions on the fly; it’s much to have stuff planned out beforehand. So I’ve been spending time with Peter [Oudemans], Dan [Schiffhauer] and Cesar [Rodriguez-Saona] as well as emailing with Joan [Davenport]. We’re mainly thinking about early season applications and putting micronutrients on, specifically copper and zinc. We’re also planning our roughneck fertilizer, which is our first application after micronutrients, basing our decisions on tissue samples, and last year’s yield. For example, everything that got sanded won’t get nitrogen; that sand layer of sand helps decomposition, which in turn increases nitrogen. One interesting thing, looking at tissue samples at Sim Place: the nitrogen levels are higher there, so we’re not making any applications during the roughneck stage. What’s neat about is that we know that the soil is different than at the home farm–it’s much sandier at the home farm–but it’s pretty cool to see that actually reflected in the numbers.”

He’s also working a plan to “culturally” attack the fruit rot issue. “This year we’re gong back to pruning some beds. The hope is that opening up the canopy will lead to a drier canopy and less fruit rot,” Mike says. “We haven’t done it in a few years, though other growers have, so we’re going back to it to see what we can find out.” Other things Mike’s team is working on: Tim Bourgeois is working on getting bees, as well as making sure we’re compliant on safety regulations; Matt Stiles is already working on young beds, replacing some plants that popped out during winter flood; Vanessa DeJesus is going through ICM supplies and making sure we have everything we needed before we kick into high gear.

And, of course, our team is doing the usual ongoing equipment maintenance as well as designing some improvements. “We experimented last year with the dry fertilizer applications on the new buggy,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “We learned a lot from that; we discovered it was under-powered, as well as having a few other small issues, so we’re remedying that. We’re also going to be experimenting with using it for liquid applications; it may not be the final unit that we use, but it’s going to teach us a lot. Mike’s working on the criteria for this; we’ll pick one or two systems that will use it exclusively for the entire season and see how we do.” We’re also moving ahead with the next stage of pump automation as well as thinking ahead to harvest. “There are quite a few things we need to do there,” Bryan says. “We’re going to build two more blower tractors, and we’re getting a third bog side cleaner. We’re also going to have some folks come in and talk to us about how to tweak our machinery at the loading platform to try and eliminate rot before sending fruit up to Chatsworth.”

That’s quite a list, but our team, as always, is prepared to work hard and do everything we do better every day!

Gate construction

While this week’s snowstorm was mild in comparison to last year’s, it still means our team had to suspend our sanding operation and move to other tasks, because our team never stops! Today, some team members shifted to building gates for our latest renovation project. Each year our planned renovations includes the removal of wooden floodgates and replacing them with the newer PVC gate design.

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“Changing to this type of gate was the best thing we’ve ever done,” says one team member. “They’re easier to manage and we get a lot more flexibility of use.”

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Longtime team member Wilfredo Pagan is in charge of this operation. “Pipe gates are better,” he says. “They’re easier to install, and they last longer, too.” First, though, he has to set up the laser level in order to make sure the gate is set up correctly. The team will be able to put the new gate in at the same depth as the old one. This is where they have to be careful; if it’s not even the two parts of the new gate can shift over time since they’re not one solid piece of pipe. “Once you put them together, the only thing holding them is dirt and pressure,” Wilfredo says. “If you have a situation where the canal is deeper than the ditch, you have to measure at the top of the dam and set it so the uprights are level with it. If the canal is lower than bog and you don’t adjust for it, it can wash out underneath.”

In the meantime, Junior Colon has been on the excavator making sure the water’s been blocked off in both the canal and the ditches. “Once that’s blocked off, we can start digging,” he says.

After the water is stopped, it’s time to start digging up the dam. “We go right down to the top of the boards on the old gate,” says Junior, “and then we have to continue to dig behind it to get the turf out and make sure the water’s all gone.”

Once the excavator clears out the dirt around the old gate, it’s time to lift each side one at a time to put the chains on for easier lifting.

The old gate then gets lifted onto a waiting tractor and hauled away.

Once the new gate is installed, the team will fill the dirt back and then haul in turf to patch the sides before crowning the dam and moving on to the next gate!

Heat – summer 2016

It cannot be said enough: the key to growing cranberries is water. Cranberries need about an inch of water each week during the growing season (either via rain or irrigation), preferably early in the morning or at night, in order to avoid losing it to evaporation. We irrigate for two reasons: first, to keep the vines healthy and productive, and second, to protect them from the heat. Keeping them cool helps protect the bloom, the fruit, and the vines themselves. Once the fruit is formed, it’s important to keep them from what we term “scalding”. Scald occurs when the temperature is high but the dew point (humidity) is low; as Dr. Peter Oudemans likes to say, “When people are comfortable, the cranberries are in trouble.”

When humidity is low, applied water will readily evaporate and cool the fruit. During the day, if temperatures get up to around 95 degrees, we will turn on the irrigation in order to cool the bog down to the 80s. We’ll run the pumps for about an hour or two, depending on variables such as wind, temperature, and humidity. There is also a distinct difference between sending water through the root system and keeping the bog cool. The trick is avoiding complications from too much moisture, which can cause conditions that are welcoming to fungi such as phytophthora, which causes root rot. Vines shouldn’t be damp all the time; it’s a balancing act to keep the fruit at optimum growth conditions while avoiding oversaturation. The key to walking the tightrope is constant evaluation and always being aware of bog conditions.

With the use of thermal imaging cameras, our team has been able to use our irrigation systems much more efficiently when cooling down the fruit. “With the camera, we can get a better indication of when we should run the water,” says manager Mike Haines. “Historically, when the temperature got high enough, we would just turn on the sprinklers and let them run for a while. But it wasn’t always necessary. We could get a day that was only in the high 80s but really dry, which means the fruit’s going to get super hot and break down. That can lead to rot. Conversely, it could be 95 out, but the humidity might be high enough to keep fruit cool. Using a thermal camera is helping us pinpoint temperatures precisely so we run the pumps when we need to rather than guessing.”

Regarding the recent heat wave, “I actually think the plants are liking it,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “Our reservoirs are lower, and we’ve been irrigating every four days as well as paying closer attention to dry areas, but that’s not indicative of the heat wave.. .that’s just because we haven’t had much rain. As far as the growth is concerned, we’re doing okay.” His main worry in this weather is for our team members. “It certainly impacts our people, but we’re taking precautions and keeping an eye out. We’ve been starting work at 5:30 as opposed to 7:00 and leaving early, and that’s helped a little bit. We’re keeping everyone hydrated and making sure the water coolers are readily available. And as the temperature rises we try to rotate people among tasks that keep them out of the sun and in cooler areas as much as possible.”