MFS Intensive Learning 2017

Yesterday we had our annual visit from the Moorestown Friends School Intensive Learning Pine Barrens program. From the MFS website:

For one week each March, regular classes are suspended for “Intensive Learning,” when Middle and Upper School students and teachers engage in an in-depth study of a specific subject, often involving off-campus research. This long-standing MFS tradition – which dates to the mid 1970s – allows teachers and students to break out of the structure of formal class periods and traditional study by subject disciplines (math, English, history) for a time of experiential learning in out-of-classroom settings.

The students in the Pine Barrens group spent some time learning about the history of the pines, and finished up their week by coming to visit us and see what people are doing in the present.

Mike Haines and Matt Giberson opened with an overview of Pine Island and our various tasks throughout the year, followed up by the always-lively John Parke, Stewardship Project Director for New Jersey Audubon. Afterward, we took the students out to walk through a young bog and then out to one of our forestry sites.

“I thought the kids asked some great questions,” says Mike. “It was cool this year we were not only able to tell them about our operation, but also they got to hear from John about the quail release project. Cranberry farming is part of the history of the pines as well as a continuing industry, so I really liked being able to add to the breadth of the topics they’ve been covering all week.” Matt agrees: “It was a lot of fun seeing the kids get into the tour this year, especially with John being there. It was a good opportunity to see how Pine Island’s growing season works, but also how our other projects are not only beneficial to our operation but to the community as well.”

“It was an absolute pleasure to present information about the quail translocation project to the students,” says John Parke. “It’s great to see kids getting out to the farm and learning in the field about the importance of agriculture, land management and how it ties to natural resource protection,” Parke added, “because children who are connected to the land and understand value of nature and agriculture, can positively shape the future as good stewards.”

Breaking bud

When it comes to agriculture, too much rain can be just as bad as not enough. And there’s been quite a bit of rain in the area over the past couple of weeks.

“Getting too much rain is not conducive to growing cranberries,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “We’re in the growing season now, but heavy rains can delay that, a little.” It doesn’t just affect the cranberries: “All the work slows down: maintenance, renovation. . .everything else we need to do. So our team has other tasks to work on. We’re rebuilding sprinklers, cleaning up trees, repairing dams, doing anything we can do in poor weather. It all needs to be done; it just means we need to get more done later.”

“The rain and the colder temperatures mean the buds aren’t growing as quickly as they should,” says manager Mike Haines. “Right now in the established beds we should be seeing signs of bud break, so Vanessa, Tim, and I are scouting growth stages every day…but the rain slows that down for us.”

In addition to negatively affecting plant growth, many tasks normally undertaken during the growing season have been delayed as well. “It’s held up some fertilizer applications we want to put on the young beds,” Mike says. “The minute you take water off you want new plants to start growing like crazy throughout the whole season. But since it’s so wet, we can’t fertigate because the beds are saturated already. We can’t use the Gephardt because it’ll get stuck, and planes are a no-go. There’s not enough acreage ready to really justify bringing the planes in, anyway, so those applications are delayed.”

“Planting is stalled as well; we’re still not done planting the Haines variety in Warehouse #1, because it’s too wet for the planter,” he says. “Water is sitting on top of the new growth, so we’re also talking about putting underdrain in there.” There is, however, a bright side! “I can catch up on office work! Right now I’m making a bee map, which will help coordinate the beekeepers when the time comes. We’ll be pretty busy when it finally warms up!”

Bog renovation 2016 – planting update

Bog renovation, as always, is an ongoing project at Pine Island, and our team is moving right along! Manager of Bog Renovations Steve Manning is pleased with the current progress. “Two weeks ago, we finished Osborne Spung,” he says. “It’s been all sub-graded, we’ve built the canals and the dams, and now it’s ready for sand. We’re continuing to put sand in over at Worth Tract; Jeremy [Fenstermaker] is designing the irrigation set-up, the pumps are going in, the structures are being built. Wilfredo [Pagan] has a crew putting gates in.”

Another current project is finishing the planting at Warehouse #1. While our team planted most of that acreage back in the fall, they were only able to finish about 3/4 of the portion alloted to the Haines variety. “There was a problem getting some of the material, but ultimately it won’t really be a big deal,” says manager Mike Haines. “There’s not going to be too much of a growth difference.” Tim [Bourgeois] and Jeremy have been working on getting the planter calibrated in order to keep as few people as possible walking behind it and fixing plants. “The wet weather means we need to keep the planter out of the newer beds, so in the meantime we also have a crew out at Old 11 Acre replanting some spots that died due to Phytophthora,” Mike says. (Phytophthora is a fungus that leads to rot.)

Eliminating fruit rot is a top priority of our team. “It’s usually caused by having too much water on for too long, especially during hot and humid weather conditions,” Mike says. “Last year on these beds, I tried to sub-irrigate by bringing ditches up instead of running sprinklers. But these have a heavier soil, which holds water longer, and I ended up watering more than needed. So we considered all that and decided to keep ditches down and just water as needed. Matt [Stiles] is incorporating that as part of his irrigation plan, as well as taking some other preventive measures. Jeremy did a lot of research and found we can switch nozzles on sprinklers so we can irrigate using 33% less water, which will be great for next year when these beds will be ready for frost protection.”

“Everyone’s doing a great job; it can be really tedious hand planting everything,” Mike says. “But things have been moving faster than I’ve ever seen before!”

Planting 2015 – Haines variety

Our 2015 bog reno is done and for the grand finale, our team finished with the inaugural planting of the new Rutgers Haines variety!

From Integrity Propagation’s April release:

The Haines™ Cranberry Variety…resulted from a 1999 cross between the Crimson Queen® variety as the seed parent and #35 as the pollen parent. The #35 variety is an unpatented variety from a ‘Howes x Searles’ cross from the 1940s USDA/NJAES Cranberry Breeding Program. Haines variety was one of 138 progeny of this 1999 cross, made at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Cranberry Research in Chatsworth, NJ. Haines variety was initially selected for its very high yield potential, mid-season ripening, large round berry (averaging about two grams per berry) and uniform fruit color. In 2007, the Haines variety was selected for further testing in advanced replication selection trials in Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. The plots continued to exhibit the variety’s consistent high yields with mid-season ripening. Haines has also exhibited less fruit rot than Stevens in these plots.

“We’re putting Haines in on a ten acre bog, but since it’s a new variety, stock is still low, so we ended up planting 8 acres and will finish in spring,” explains New Production Manager Mike Haines. “Those eight acres only took two days, with an average of 4.25 acres a day. That’s really good. And we did it with no late nights; we worked from 7 to 5:30 and our numbers were up from the previous record of 3.5 acres/day.” When asked why, he says, “There are lots of reasons. Every year, there are mistakes you learn from. That’s one improvement. The land is well cleared; there were no stumps that can cause a momentary halting of the process. We concentrated on having both planters make the longest passes possible through the bed, which means we have to make fewer turns, which increases our efficiency.”

Planting a new variety is not without its challenges! “We finished up with hand planting, and I was pretty nervous about going back and forth between the Haines bog and the Mullica Queens,” Mike says. “Making sure we didn’t create any inadvertent hybrids was a little nerve-wracking!” He is hopeful for the expected higher yields and increased rot resistance, as well: “If you have your name on it, you especially want to get good results.”

*Photo credits, top and bottom photos: Nadine Haines.

Learning through experience

One of the late Bill Sr.’s favorite maxims about just about everything involving cranberries was, “Where is the water coming from, and where do you want it to go?” That can be one of the most challenging things to pick up when you are learning about Pine Island’s irrigation system. GM Fred Torres tells newer team members all the time: “You’re not going to learn how to do this overnight.” In practice, this means constant awareness and monitoring of where the water is coming from, where it is going, and how much stream is coming down.

Assistant Manager Mike Haines is beginning to learn all about this. “Jeremy [Fenstermaker] has been showing me the different ways you can direct the water,” Mike says. “There’s no one right way; there’s just figuring out the optimal way to get them flooded quickly so they’re not damaged by the cold.” Under normal conditions, the temperature steadily drops post-harvest; it is important to wait until the vines go dormant before starting to put the water on. Once they freeze and aren’t covered with water, the roots can become exposed, and we need to cover them as fast as possible.

Flooding starts by letting in streams from the reservoirs to canals and bogs. Strategic board placement (more boards in the southernmost bogs to catch the water) will get the ditches high and running down to start flooding from the bottom up. As the water level in the bogs begins to rise, our team begins adjusting the water level in the bogs by adding boards where they are needed. Once the vines are covered and the stream has settled, we adjust the level of the reservoirs to maintain the stream and keep the bogs flooded for the winter. Wells are shut down once bogs are flooded, and only turned on again if it is dry and reservoir levels are dropping.

“I worked very closely with Gerard at the beginning of the year to learn about the water system overall,” says Mike, “but that was just the beginning. I learned about where it was coming from, but am still learning where and how each system is connected.” The flooding is just about done, but he’s also working closely with Jeremy on adjustments: “Now he’s tinkering here and there so that we have the flow we need all winter but aren’t wasting water, which also helps us work more efficiently. It’s a lot of problem solving and math, but I’m really beginning to understand.”

Ocean Spray Next Wave 2014

This week at the company headquarters in Massachusetts, the Ocean Spray Cooperative hosted their annual Next Wave class. The Next Wave class is designed for “new growers who have joined the family farm or growers who are taking over their family farm”, and its goal is to help the new growers understand how the business is run on the cooperative end just as they are learning how the business is run on the growing end. This year, Pine Island Cranberry sent assistant manager Michael Haines and webmaster Stefanie Haines (that’s me! Hello!) to learn more about the co-op side of the business.

The winter weather made travel a bit complicated, but even with missing the first morning session, we obtained a great deal of useful information. The good folks at Ocean Spray led us through a history of the co-op, how the cooperative model functions, and how that is integrated with many of the departments within the co-op. The mock Jeopardy game led by the legal department was a highlight, giving us a chance to catch up on what we’d missed and giving everyone else a chance to review earlier sessions.

Most importantly, though, it gave Michael and I a chance to put some faces to names, both for other growers and for the staff at Ocean Spray. “I was familiar with some people just from tagging along with either Dad or Abbott [Lee, of Integrity Propagation],” Michael says, “but this was great because it’s smaller than the Annual Growers Meeting and we’re all mostly starting from the same place.” He also really liked hearing from growers in different regions. “It’s a great chance to widen your horizons. You can get together and talk with people who are trying new or different methods and bring it home to try for yourself.” Some aren’t practical for us, he said, but were just cool to hear about: “Some of the Wisconsin growers were saying the ice is so thick they can just drive trucks onto the bog and sand them that way!”

It was also a fantastic opportunity to see what happens once the fruit leaves the farm and how much has to be done to get the product to the market. Ocean Spray’s very thorough program also showed us a lot about the supply chain, innovation, and marketing, which were all very interesting! “It’s amazing how much more stuff happens,” Mike says. “The first step is leaving the farm, but then they still have to come up with products and how to move fruit.” The real high point for Michael and I, though, was the chance to tour the Middleboro processing facility. Our group was led by plant director Earl Larson, who took us all the way through the process and made it both enjoyable and educational.

In fact, everyone at Ocean Spray was great. Judy Joy and Jeni Francoeur ran an excellent program, as they always do. Everyone was extremely welcoming, and it was well-run from start to finish! We couldn’t have asked for anything better…except for maybe a little less snow.

Pine Island Team Profiles – Mike Haines and Eric Gonzalez-Perez

The new year also brings us new team members! Two former part-time team members have gotten their full time start at Pine Island this month: assistant manager Michael Haines and team member Eric Gonzalez-Perez.

Mike, a graduate of Fordham University and CEO Bill Haines’ youngest son (making him the fifth generation of the Haines family to join the business) comes to us from two years at Integrity Propagation, where he gained nursery experience and began to truly learn a lot about the cranberry industry. “Working with Abbott [Lee, owner of Integrity Propagation] was a tremendous help,” Mike says. “I worked at Pine Island over the summers, but was only really seeing the small scale. I was scouting, setting out traps, all the summer things, but I didn’t realize the implications. I just did what I needed to do when I needed to do it. Abbott helped show me the big picture; I got to see the growing season unfold over the course of a year, and then I got to compare and contrast the following year. Abbott explained everything; if I had questions, he answered them. And now I can bring that with me to learn the big picture on the commercial side.”

His education here, as with everything else in cranberry production, starts with the water. “Water is complicated!” Mike says. “It’s a long process and I’m always going to be learning it.” However, he has a great instructor in Gerardo Ortiz. “I go out with Gerard every day. The first thing he taught me was all the practical things that apply across the entire farm: how to take out and put in boards, which direction the water goes, how much has to move through.” The next step is going out on his own, starting at the top of the farm, and following how the water is flowing in order to make a plan.

Planning is Mike’s favorite part, and new COO Bryan vonHahmann is impressed with his willingness to ask questions. This week they’ve started meeting with all of the different managers, starting with Louis Cantafio. “Helping with the facilities plan appeals to my sensibilities,” Mike says. “I really like the organizational aspect; that’s a big help with learning the big picture.” He hopes to apply this to working with other growers; he enjoyed travelling with Abbott to meet growers in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and even Canada, and thinks it will be even better now that he’ll have experience of commercial production and not just the nursery side. Most of all, he’s excited for the warm weather to see the growing season really get underway.

Former seasonal team member Eric Gonzalez-Perez started full-time with us this week, and we’re glad to have him back with us! Last harvest was his sixth year at Pine Island, where he had previously worked with the fairy ring team, the Blue Harvest team, and planting. Currently he is working with Kelvin Colon on one of the sanding crews.

His adaptability and willingness to step in where he was needed made him a natural choice to move up to full-time. Kelvin was very pleased with his work during the fall planting, especially. “He did a great job out there and pretty much became my right hand man,” Kelvin says. Eric will be taking on additional responsibilities as a full-time team member, including working on the frost team and (thanks to his great work in past planting seasons) getting more involved in new production. His long history with Pine Island makes training a snap, as he already knows how to use a lot of the equipment. And like so many others, Eric’s favorite time of year is the harvest, and he can’t wait to see it again. But in the meantime, he says, “I want to learn as much as I can. I want to know everything.” It’s that kind of drive that made Eric such a valuable team member during previous years, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of it on a full-time basis!