Meet Our Neighbors: The Sooy Family

The New Jersey cranberry industry is small, but it is mighty. Welcome to the next installment of our occasional series about some of our fellow New Jersey cranberry growers! This week, we spoke with our immediate neighbors to the south: Peggy Sooy and her sons Steven and Johnny.

1. How long has your family been in the business?

Stevie: Grandpop used to live at Stormy Hill behind where the Pine Island office is now. Otis gave him the lower track here and they moved over in ’45 or ’46. We’ve been working here ever since.

2. What’s your favorite aspect of cranberry farming?

Stevie: I just love the whole growing season. Taking the water off, putting the risers in, bringing in the bees…

Peggy: You’re a farmer and you enjoy what you’re doing!

Stevie: Exactly. Because at the end you’re looking out there at a sea of red, then that last truck heads for the receiving station and blows the horn. I just enjoy the whole thing from beginning to end.

Peggy: You dedicate so much of your life to this and you know, it’s part of you. It’s part of your thinking process. The paperwork will kill you, though.

3. What has been your biggest challenge?

Stevie: Getting the bugs under control!

Johnny: Weather.

Stevie: Yeah, that too. Cranberry growers are always calling each other: “What temperature are you getting? This guy’s at 32 already, that guy got hail, what are you looking at?” Everything else we can control, but you can’t control the weather or the insects!

Peggy: There are a lot of ifs. Weather. Surviving the season and meeting expenses. When we had blueberries the issue was getting the help but we have great neighbors!

4. What makes your operation unique?

Peggy: It’s not only a farm, it’s a friendship, it’s family, all of us. Anything we need. What’s so unique with us, unlike a lot of growers, we’re really small. So it’s great to take care of.

Stevie: It’s a big garden in a way. We can look out the window and say “no geese, no swans, we’re okay today!”

Peggy: We have the same strength as so many other growers: we’re family owned and you can depend on your family…which is the three of us at this point!

5. What’s a legendary story in your family?

Peggy: I think just how we started out and have managed to keep going, really. Art’s mother and father worked hard and managed to keep the place going. It’s a reward, being able to keep the farm up all these years. That’s our reward.

*Photos courtesy of Peggy, Steven, and Johnny Sooy.

Previously: The Lee Family

Meet Our Neighbors: The Lee Family

Last week, we celebrated seven years of bringing you our story online. This week, we thought it was time to hear directly from some of our friends in the industry. Welcome to our inaugural post in what will be an occasional series about some of our fellow New Jersey cranberry growers!

For this first post, we spoke with our longtime friends and neighbors to the north, the Lee family! Steve Lee IV, the sixth generation of the Lee family to take an active interest in his family farm, was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

1. How long has your family been in the business?

The Lee Family has been farming in Speedwell since 1868. Lee Brothers, Inc. which is part of the Ocean Spray Grower-Owned Cooperative has been in continuous operation since 1949. Integrity Propagation, the cranberry industry’s first foundation-level nursery has been in operation since 2008. Currently the 5th, 6th and the 7th generations of the Lee Family are living and working on the cranberry production or greenhouse operation which encompasses Washington, Woodland and Tabernacle Townships.

2. What’s your favorite aspect of cranberry farming?

The harvest season is by far the most special time of year for our family. When the crop is good, the harvest season can be very rewarding. When crops are not as strong as expected, harvest is more of a time to reflect on the decisions made during the past growing season and begin to create the playbook for the upcoming growing season. Either way, harvest is special because we celebrate our heritage and share it with visitors that want to experience the season and be “part of the crew”.

3. What has been your biggest challenge?

Challenges? What challenges? Keeping governmental regulations under control is by far the biggest issue. Collectively, our industry works on developing and nurturing our relationships with lawmakers to help with ever-increasing regulatory, manufacturing and horticultural challenges. Managing these relationships can sometimes be very time consuming.

4. What makes your operation unique?

For the most part, we all get along. Not all farm-families do, which could sometimes certainly be a problem. Historically, we have an outside-the-box approach to innovations that are geared towards improving overall operational efficiency and agricultural production. Many of the innovations developed here have become standard throughout the industry including but not limited to the ride-on harvester and fertilizer/spray buggy. Several members of our family have served and continue to serve in leadership positions in a variety of areas including government, associations, civic, religious, banking, and agricultural. We are also so fortunate to have enjoyed multiple generations of our family working together, and employees that have become part of our extended family. We are also very unique in having such a great relationship with our neighbors, the Haines Family.

5. What’s a legendary story in your family?

As with any farm family, we have many family stories. Some of the stories involving each of the generations of the Lee and Haines families are legendary, but probably not suitable for print. We are very fortunate to be part of a cooperative that truly is a multi-generational extended family. That was most evident on Labor Day 2012, when we were hit with about 13” of rain in roughly a 6 hour period. Although it rained throughout South Jersey, the hardest hit area was right here in Chatsworth, Speedwell, Hog Wallow and Pineworth. Once word began to get our on how much rain we had, support came in the way of equipment, manpower, food and phone calls to “check on us” and offer “anything we needed”. Certainly, the outpouring of concerns and support we received was not concentrated to that day or even that instance, but it clearly demonstrates the love, passion, support, and cooperation of the cranberry industry here in New Jersey.

The Lees are fantastic neighbors and even better friends, and we’re glad to have such good people in our community!

*Photo courtesy Steve Lee IV.

Blog anniversary 2019

This weeks marks the seven year anniversary of the Pine Island Cranberry website, and as always, we’ve had quite an eventful year!

The annual harvest remains our biggest draw for readers, of course, and this year saw not only our annual visit from George Giorno and his Bog to Bottle tour, but our own visit to the Ocean Spray receiving station!

The receiving station, coincidentally, celebrated its 30th anniversary this past year, and Pine Island team members were there to celebrate with them.

Team members were also in attendance at both the ACGA summer field day and winter meeting, as well as at the Ocean Spray Annual Growers Meeting.

We also profiled several team members over the past year. Both Jeremy Fenstermaker and Ernie Waszkiewicz both celebrated milestone work anniversaries, and we also talked up newer team member Justin Ross.

The bobwhite quail project continued with another release last April.

The Haines family also had quite a year! Not only did they once again start farming the original property at the Birches, originally purchased after the Civil War by Martin L. Haines, they welcomed sixth generation member Jack Fenstermaker to the world of cranberry growing with his very first summer job. In November, they gained a brand new member of the family when Mike Haines married the lovely Daina!

Pine Island also got some media coverage, as most operations do every year around harvest time. This year, the quail project was covered locally, while the harvest was covered by both NBC 10 and Business Insider. But the seemingly unanimous favorite this year goes to this fun piece about CEO Bill Haines, accompanied by a fantastic video.

And, of course, our entire team remains proud to be members of the Ocean Spray family.

We look forward to everything the next year has in store for us, and we’re so glad you’re all here to read about it as well!

Ocean Spray AGM 2019

Ocean Spray has once again held its annual meeting over Super Bowl weekend, albeit with a much more boring game this time.

REMEMBER WHEN?

Every year the AGM is an opportunity to sit down and catch up with growers from other regions to exchange stories and ideas and hear how the industry as a whole is faring. This year the growers also had opportunities to taste new products that have yet to be introduced to the public as well as a visit to the plant in Henderson, Nevada, with Pine Island manager Mike Haines coming away particularly impressed with the plant and their team.

Pine Island CEO Bill Haines came away with a good feeling about Ocean Spray’s direction.

“While there’s a lot of work to do, the atmosphere among the growers attending the meeting was positive,” Bill says. “We’re happy to see the energy and talent of Bobby’s new team: the reinvesting in renovation, reaching out to younger consumers, and positioning Ocean Spray for solid growth in the future.”

ACGA Winter Meeting 2019

This week the American Cranberry Growers Association once again held its annual winter meeting. The ACGA winter meeting is always a good opportunity for growers to listen to research findings from experiments during the previous growing season and the researchers’ recommendations for the 2019 growing season. In addition, it’s a great chance for the local cranberry community to catch up to each other after the busy harvest season.

Pine Island sent a big crew this year, and they all came away pleased with the experience. CEO Bill Haines thought this year was particularly good, and as always, enjoyed the the chance to sit down and chat with fellow growers at lunch. ““You can get as much from just having a conversation over lunch as you can from the presentation,” he says.

The rest of the team were equally glad they attended. “It was good to know about some regulatory changes that are coming up,” says Justin Ross. “Knowing what will and won’t be available now will help us plan things better for later.”

“I thought Thierry’s research with the effectiveness of of some treatments on red root was interesting,” says Matt Giberson. “I think more testing should be done on the timing of the application that would be most effective, though. Very interested to know more about how we can kill that swan loving devil weed.” One other side note he thought was interesting: how some treatments seem to greatly reduce yield when applied early in berry development. “From talking to Peter, it seems that it causes phytotoxicity to the flower making it less likely to produce fruit, hence the cause of pin fruit development.”

Newer team member Mike Scullion says, “I enjoyed learning about the management of red root in our bogs as that is an ongoing issue we are dealing with on our farm. My favorite part of the meeting, as always, is learning about the new varieties Nick Vorsa is working on. They are getting closer and closer to producing a strain of cranberry that not only has a higher resistance to fruit rot, but still has a higher yield.”

“I found Nakorn’s presentation really interesting,” says Mike Haines. “We know that we don’t want blunt-nosed leafhopper in the bogs, as they spread false blossom disease, but it was interesting to hear his hypotheses and thoughts on why this interaction occurs, like how the leafhoppers that feed on diseased plants end up being larger adults, and that nutrient levels are actually higher in infected plants.”

All in all, it was another productive day for our Pine Island team as well another excellent program put together by Dr. Cesar Rodriguez-Saona. Thank you, Cesar!

Ocean Spray Regional Meeting

This week, Ocean Spray held one of their regular regional meetings at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research to provide a business and cooperative update for New Jersey grower-owners. Not everyone manages to get to every Annual Growers Meeting, so it was a great chance to hear from CEO Bobby Chacko as well as several senior executives about where Ocean Spray is, where we’re going, and how we’re getting there!

Pine Island CEO and member of the Ocean Spray Board of Directors Bill Haines opened the meeting by introducing the management team. “Two things you can count on from this management team: one, they’re working hard, and two, they’ll tell us the truth,” he said.

Bobby said, upon his selection, “Ocean Spray’s story is close to nine decades old, but we are just getting started,” and everyone’s presentations this week are in line with that vision. We heard from Board Chairman Peter Dhillon, Bobby, and new senior executives Joseph Vanderstelt (SVP, Chief Financial Officer), Brian Schiegg (SVP, Chief Commercial Officer), and Jamie Head (Chief Information Officer), as well as board advisor Marla Gottschalk. Each speaker gave us a little bit of their background and what strengths they bring to Ocean Spray as an organization as well as their vision for the coop’s future. They touched upon supply, marketing, and the importance of emphasizing that the company is grower-owned, and spent a great deal of time answering questions both respectfully and openly.

“I thought it was great,” says grower Steve Sooy. “The more they’re here to talk with us, the better off they are and the better off we are. I appreciate straight talk, no sugarcoating, and they gave us that.”

“Honesty,” Steve says. “You can’t ask for better than that.”

Ocean Spray: From Bog to Bottle 2018

Mid-October means it’s time for one of our favorite annual traditions here at Pine Island Cranberry: a visit from George Giorno of Ocean Spray on his “Bog to Bottle” tour! George comes to see us every year, along with various account executives from some of Ocean Spray’s wholesale customers. This year, we were happy to see that George brought Greg McCann of Advantage Solutions for his fourth visit, as well as new visitors Jeremy Mitchell (also from Advantage), Danny Seijido from the Ocean Spray sales team, and Tucker Lynn and Victor DeJesso from Wakefern.

The group gathered at our main office, where they heard a brief farm history from CEO Bill Haines, and fifth generation grower Mike Haines and his sister Stefanie took everyone out to see how we do things in the pines!

We arrived at Red Road just as our team was beginning the process of gathering a freshly picked bed, and everyone got to go up onto the bog side cleaner’s platform to get a view from the top!

Then it was off for a close up look at the Gates Harrow in action before heading down the road to the Ocean Spray receiving station in Chatsworth.

These days, all the Haines family really has to provide is a driver; George’s knowledge and enthusiasm is tremendous, and he knows every single step of our harvest. “While the calendar may say fall arrives on September 21st, it really doesn’t actually arrive until our annual trip to visit the Haines Family at PICC in mid-October,” says George. “Yet another great day with Stef and Michael Haines this year, while also getting to visit with Bill upon our arrival, as we toured the farm with our guests from Wakefern Food Corporation and our agency partners from Advantage Solutions. For four of our guests, this was their first time experiencing the beauty of the Cranberry Harvest and for me, it was another day where I get to reignite the passion for my vocation and visit with a great Ocean Spray Cooperative Family who treat me as one of her own! Never a visit without learning something new from something old as PICC is continuously improving their harvesting operations in a meaningful, efficient and positive way.”

Greg McCann always has a good time, too, and never fails to ask interesting questions! “This being my fourth year of touring your bog, I learned something new, yet again,” Greg says. “With the hot weather being late this year, it really affects the color of the cranberries, as evidenced by the mix of white, pink and red colors in the Bog! Last year, they were more crimson red, at this point in October.”

We say this every year after George and his group come to see us: it’s always a pleasure to speak with people who are genuinely enthusiastic about what they do and are so willing to completely immerse themselves in a new experience. It‘s always fun to have George and his team here and show our customers how we really do things. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us. Thanks again, George, for everything you and your team do!

Green Team – 2018

We’re running all three teams this week and things have been going pretty well! Our Green team has been working steadily behind the office and the new turns for the tractor trailers have been getting a workout while our crews are hauling fruit to the Ocean Spray receiving station in Chatsworth.

The trucks are wired to a set of lights so the gathering team leader can communicate effectively from the bog side cleaner’s platform. When one section of the trailer is full, the team leader hits a button and the yellow light in the truck cab indicates that it’s time to move forward! If the driver moves up a little too far, the team leader will use the red light indicator to tell the driver to back up.)

Once the truck is full, it’s time to head down the road!

Once the driver gets to the receiving station, he drives to the scales, where he turns in the paperwork and Ocean Spray takes some initial samples.

He is assigned a pool number, then drives around back and backs up to the assigned pool.

The crew at the station then start running the equipment needed to clear the berries from the trailer and take additional samples as needed.

When the truck is empty, it’s back around to the scales to be weighed again, and off again home to pick up another load!

Ocean Spray Receiving Station – Chatsworth’s 30th Anniversary

This year, the Ocean Spray receiving station in Chatsworth celebrates its 30th anniversary, and several growers were on hand to celebrate with the hardworking station crew.

“We wanted to have a celebration of our 30th anniversary just before we start harvest number 31,” says manager Bob Garatino. Bob and his crew work all year to make sure that the approximately 49 days of cranberry harvest run as smoothly as possible, from start to finish, and they’ve been making a lot of improvements in the “off” season. “Two months out of the year, our goal is cleaning and sizing cranberries. The rest of the year, we make sure our bins are cleaned and prepared for the next season. And we also take a few actions. As you enter the property and look around, there’s a lot of new signage related to safety. Safety is paramount; nothing we do is so important and no service we provide is so urgent that we cannot perform our job safely. Quality is king; we do our best to judge fruit fairly and consistently, because we know that’s our job. We’re committed to keeping costs as low as we can; where we can do it ourselves we will. We also look started asking ourselves “what if”: if something comes up, how will we handle it?”

Bob also took the opportunity to thank the growers for their support. “[The growers] have been here to plow out three feet of snow, to give us valuable feedback and advice, sending us blueberries, educating us on the latest research, bringing us holiday cookies, or just working with us to work out bumps and bruises of the annual harvest.” He is also very proud of his Chatsworth team. “They take pride in their work every day.”

Communication with the growers and timing delivery truly is the key, says supervisor Alonza Williams. “Production varies; if everyone gathers at the same time it’s going to crank things up, but if one grower is harvesting a lower yield variety than what another grower might be doing it balances out.” The receiving station has 12 people on staff during the slower months, but by the time they’re in full swing that number grows to 29, and that’s when communication truly becomes essential: “We’ll stay in touch with growers for their start and end times and even Sundays, by request.” In addition to prepping the bins, Alonza’s getting the lab ready so growers can ring samples in to test for TAcy and firmness.

“The Chatsworth receiving station has always been a big benefit to the growers in New Jersey,” says Pine Island CEO Bill Haines. “It’s always been a pleasure to work with the crew there. Bob, Alonza, Mike, and the rest of the team have always been more than helpful, and we’re glad they’re part of the Ocean Spray team.”

Blog anniversary: 2018

This week is the six year anniversary of the Pine Island Cranberry website, and it’s certainly been an eventful year!

Our normal yearly workload proceeded much as it usually does, with our annual schedule of bog renovation, frost, planting, and sanding, as well as the yearly harvest.

We had our annual visit from Dr. Joan Davenport, and made some changes to our plant nutrition program, and dealt with the usual seasonal tasks for summer, winter, and spring.

Some team members celebrated some big work anniversaries, and everyone celebrated a couple of safety milestones by getting to go home a little early! We also welcomed two new employees this year on our Facilities and Equipment team and at the office, and are currently looking for someone to join our ICM team!

It’s been a huge year for our stewardship work with New Jersey Audubon and Pine Creek Forestry. The Northern Bobwhite Quail Initiative continues to go well, and even received some national and state recognition! We’re truly honored to be working with such great partners on such an important project.

Harvest continues to be the topic our readers are most interested in, and this year, they got to see a bit more than usual! In addition to our weekly blog posts, we received visits from both Nora Muchanic and Mike Jerrick, as well as several print publications. We’re always glad to tell people about doing what we love, and how our team does whatever it takes to make the prettiest sight in the pines happen, year after year!

Last but not least, we got to celebrate at a very special Annual Growers Meeting, which we’re planning on enjoying for quite some time.

We’re so glad you’ve continued following us from “Bog to Bottle” (as one of our favorite people at Ocean Spray likes to say) for the past six years, and we’re looking forward to keeping you updated for many years to come!