Fertilizer applications – summer 2021

Fertilizer applications are wrapping up next week (which means harvest is coming up quickly)! 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” in past years: a uniform application via irrigation system.

However, our team decided to discontinue the practice back in 2017. “With our current irrigation layout, it’s just not a fit at this point,” says Mike Haines. Instead we tried our usual applications via a buggy method introduced in 2016, which made for more precise application.

Our team needs to make sure the conditions are optimal, as well: irrigating overnight when it’s hot and dry. “We want to get that water into the soil so the plants can access those nutrients,” Mike says.

Summer irrigation – 2021

As we have mentioned so many times before, 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. And while it’s crucial in the hot summer days, cooling may also be necessary in May, before the uprights (short vertical branches) acquire their protective waxy coating.

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, the 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.

How we measure soil moisture

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.

Meet the Researchers: Peter Oudemans

Welcome to the next installment of our latest occasional feature: Meet the Researchers! We’ve spent so much time talking about the excellent work being done at the Rutgers Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry & Cranberry Research that we thought it was time to learn a little more about the people behind the projects. This week: Dr. Peter Oudemans.

1. What drew you to your field/research focus?

It turns out my great-great-grandfather was a plant pathologist. Although I did not know that when I chose the field, I can’t help thinking it was, in part, genetics. When I first discovered this field I knew it was for me.

2. What do you consider your best accomplishment?

Developing meaningful recommendations that can be used in the field and that I have confidence in is very satisfying to me. It encompasses everything I know about the disease so that we can slow it down and achieve a marketable crop. These are also evolving all the time and as we learn more they change.

3. What has been your biggest challenge?

In my bubble it is just the pathogen and host. Somehow we need to interrupt that interaction. Things become challenging when there are new things to consider. For example, MRLs, pollinator health, climate change, or export-qualified fruit are all factors that can influence plant disease that are outside the current recommendations. A simple policy change on one hand can translate into significant crop loss on the other. Navigating these factors can be very challenging.

4. What are your long-term research goals?

Long-term is tricky but I would like to develop tools that will make problem-solving easier. For example, effective bioassays will help identify new chemistries for fruit rot control with a higher throughput than regular field trials. Ultimately, we will start controlling fruit rot in a more specific way and those tools will help tailor the programs.

5. What do you enjoy most about working with the cranberry community?

The place, the people, the crops. It is a beautiful mosaic and I am lucky and grateful to call it home!

Previously: Dr. Thierry Besançon

Twilight Meeting – 2021

This week it was once again time for the annual Cranberry Growers Twilight Meeting, this year hosted by the Rutgers University Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry & Cranberry Research. In contrast to the American Cranberry Grower Association’s annual winter meeting, the focus here is less research-oriented and uses a more hands-on approach to addressing timely topics of importance to cranberry growers. Included on the agenda were such topics as troubleshooting cranberry disease problems and working with new cranberry varieties.

In addition to the importance of new research findings, it’s also a great chance for the cranberry community to get together face-to-face. Our team, and the other growers, work with Rutgers all the time, but it’s good to be able to sit down with other growers and find out if they’re having some of the same problems with pests, or fairy ring, or excessive heat. That additional perspective can help us troubleshoot our own applications.

The big focus in this year’s presentations: false blossom. False blossom is “a virus-like phytoplasma that can be systemic in cranberry plants”, passed along by a pest known as the blunt-nosed leaf hopper. “False blossom is characterized by a malformation of the flowers,” says the Marucci Center, “…and there is no production of fruit, with devastating effects for cranberry yield.”

Production manager Mike Haines found the false blossom talks especially useful. “I’m concerned about the levels I’ve been seeing,” he says. “The experiment that Lindsay is running is at our place, so it was helpful to hear about her progress.”

He found everyone’s presentations informative. “Peter’s talk was interesting too, and was something we talked about over the winter. It’s good to know specifically which different fungal pathogens are out there, which ones are improving and which ones are worse, so we can map out the best strategy. Thierry’s chat was good as well; we’ve been following his recommendations with some good success. Overall it was a great meeting; they were all pertinent and informative talks with immediate practical impact for us.”

And as always, the chance to connect with fellow growers was invaluable. “It was the first cranberry meeting we’d had in person for over a year!” Mike says. “It really was great to catch up with everybody.”

“Just about everyone in the New Jersey cranberry industry was there,” says Bill Haines. “I was particularly pleased to see Rutgers recognize Nick Vorsa in appreciation for all his years of work in advancing the Marucci Center. Nick’s done remarkable work with the breeding program and all of the new varieties and it was wonderful to see him get the recognition.”

Bees – June 2021

A good fall harvest depends on a successful growing and pollination season, and cranberry growers, like many fruit growers, rely on honeybees and bumble bees to cross pollinate blossoms. Production and yield is directly tied to good pollination and subsequent fruit set. In addition, pollinators are important to native plants, which provide food and cover for numerous wildlife species, as well as helping stabilize the soil and improve water quality. One of the more important elements in the Pine Island Integrated Crop Management (PIICM) program is ensuring adequate pollination; flowers that are not visited by bees rarely produce fruit. To this end, we work with several New Jersey beekeepers to temporarily install hives during the bloom period, usually at the end of May/beginning of June depending on the weather.

Timing is key; our team waits until a bog is at about 20 to 40% bloom so the bees have enough to immediately start pollinating. This is important because cranberries are actually a lot of work for honeybees. On a cranberry plant, the anthers (the pollen-bearing part of the stamen) are shaped very differently from most other flowers, having an opening at the end of the anther, rather than splitting open to expose the pollen. This means getting the pollen out requires extra work by the pollinator. While some believe that honeybees are not as efficient at this task, single visits by pollen foraging honeybees can be enough to elicit fruit, especially in areas where weather during bloom is warm. Research has shown that honeybees are competent at pollinating cranberry flowers as long as the weather remains satisfactory, according to the USDA.

“We usually try to have two colonies per acre,” says manager Mike Haines. “This year I’m experimenting a little and bumped it up to 2.5 in higher producing areas; I might not do it next year but it seems worthwhile to try at least once.”

He also had high praise for one of our beekeepers, Rob Harvey of Harvey’s Honey, who dropped his first colonies with us last night: “Rob’s awesome; he’s easy to work with and the bees look really good this year. We already see them out working.”

Harvey’s has worked with Pine Island off and on for a long time, and they’ve always been a great operation. From their website:

Farmers along the entire east coast depend on our bees to pollinate their crops. Harvey’s Honey also manufactures quality hives and provides beeswax for hobbyists and industry.

“My dad used to provide bees for Pine Island, but for a while some anticipated changes in state regulations meant we didn’t have the volume to really work with local farmers,” Rob says. Those changes never came to pass, though, and we started working with Rob again about eight years ago. “We’ve had some blueberry honey this year, which came out better than it did last year, and that makes bees for cranberries look better. It’s looking good for cranberry honey this year, too!” While some places will collect honey while the bees are working, Rob lets them do their thing till the very end. “Our job is to let the bees work,” he says. “I’m not going to make them mad; once they’re done, we’ll extract the honey at our home farm. Until then, it’s better to let them do their job!”

“Rob is legit,” Mike says. “We all really appreciate working with him. He understands what we have to do, and he takes good care of his bees; they do good work.”

We also don’t rely entirely on our hard-working beekeepers; native pollinators such as bumblebees are also valuable to us, and bumblebees will work in wet and/or windy conditions. Bumblebees have other advantages: they work faster, visiting many more flowers per minute. Their large size lets them carry huge pollen loads, allowing longer foraging trips, and achieving better contact with flowers. Larger deposits of pollen promote pollination as well as the formation of more uniform and larger fruit. Perhaps most importantly, bumblebees are naturally attracted to cranberry plants!

Haines Family Foundation

Back in 2012, current cranberry grower Holly Haines left her position as Pine Island CFO to devote herself full time to the Haines Family Foundation. The foundation, created by Holly and Bill Jr. (under the auspice of Bill Sr.) as a tribute to their mother and her championship of schooling for Burlington County residents, is mainly focused on education and health programs in underserved communities in southern New Jersey and Philly, as well as environmental programs and open space/farmland preservation efforts.

“We formed the foundation in 1996, and in the years since, we’ve donated over six million dollars to twenty different organizations and have maintained multi-year programs with about ten of those to make an even bigger impact,” says Holly. “For example, we’ve worked for over ten years with Virtua to put donations towards their mobile breast cancer screening unit as well as their mobile farm markets, which go into communities that lack reliable access to healthier foods. It’s a great program and Virtua’s doing really well with it. We also work with Cathedral Kitchen, which is unique in that they have a café which is open to the public and is staffed by the students from their own culinary training program.”

A sizeable part of Holly’s philanthropic work has been with Habitat Philadelphia, where she was honored with their Good Neighbor award in 2019:

Holly joined our Family Services Committee in 2010 where she helped review Homeownership applications, went on home visits, and advocated for families. Holly stepped up to chair this committee and then joined the board in 2012, serving on the executive committee until 2017.   

Over the last 10 years, Holly has created opportunities for more than 80 families to reach the settlement table. And over the course of this time, Holly and her family have generously invested $1.2M in the families of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia. 

It is not a coincidence – Habitat’s growth is tied directly to the Haines Family Foundation’s partnership.  Holly has championed homes, homeowners and has also provided critical capacity funding so that we can build more.    

Education, of course remains a focus for the foundation. In addition to serving on the Board of Directors for Catholic Partnership Schools (a network “committed to strengthening and sustaining the educational excellence of the Catholic, Pre-K-8 schools that serve the children of Camden”), she has especially enjoyed working with the Bordentown Regional School District. “I started back with them on a small scale in 2014,” she says. “They had basically very little in the way of tech back then, but now I think they have one of the best equipped schools in the county. The teacher I work with is really good at getting development sessions set up for networks, hardware, software, and teacher training. They’re doing so well that during the pandemic they were able to switch to virtual with no problem; all students had access to Chromebooks or tablets or whatever they needed, which was fantastic. The high school is completely equipped and the three elementary schools are also pretty close to having everything they need. We did find out with the switch to distance learning that teachers need to be mobile, so we’re working on getting them better equipment and not keeping them tied to a desktop.”

The entire Haines family is very proud of Holly and everything she’s done and continues to do for the community!

Planting – 2021

Our team has recently finished planting the first set of renovated bogs at the Birches property in Tabernacle. There are two methods of planting: conventional propagation, which means pressing mowed vines or prunings directly into the bogs to be established; and rooted cuttings, which means planting plants with roots already established. Pine Island has used both methods in the past, but mainly we’ve moved on to using rooted cuttings. This year, though, we decided to experiment a little and try planting a bed using the old conventional propagation methods!

“It’s the first time since we planted Panama #5 that we’ve pressed in vines of any sort instead of using rooted cuttings,” says manager Mike Haines. “At the time, we thought the results were comparable so we just changed over to rooted cuttings completely.”

“This is our first planting at the new Tabernacle farm,” says supervisor Mike Scullion. “We planted approximately 15 acres, and we will be planting another 17 acres this May. In a 1 acre bed, we tried the old style of planting by pressing in cut vines with a skid steer and discs. This is the way bogs used to be planted here years ago, and the style that Wisconsin growers still practice. These plants are the Haines variety which we’ve already had promising results from in other bogs we planted a few years ago.”

“The day before planting, we have to calibrate the tractors and do a test run to make sure the timing is right and their are no other issues,” Scullion says. “With two planting tractors, planting 12 rows each in one pass, we finished planting the 15 acres in 4 days.” The reno team has also made some irrigation changes. “We also have new pop-up sprinklers we used in these beds with a filter at the beginning of the main line. This eliminates the need to clean sprinklers every time we start the pump and eliminates the need to take sprinklers out every winter and reinstall them every spring. So far they are working well.”

Mike Haines is curious to see how the 1 acre bed will grow. “I’m interested to see what happens! In Wisconsin and Quebec it’s their chief method of replanting and they feel it establishes more quickly. We’ve always thought it was comparable, but we’ve made a lot of changes in our program since then, particularly with fertilizers.”

Keep checking back to see how things turn out!

Frost – 2021

One of the toughest things cranberry growers do is managing springtime frost conditions. In the spring, there is a danger to the crop when the temperature drops. 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. It’s no exaggeration to say there would be no crop if we didn’t watch for frost on the bogs.

The first step is monitoring the temperature. Each bog has a thermometer (usually located in the coldest section) that requires frequent checking throughout the first part of the night. Once the temperature drops to between 33 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the stage of growth), it’s time to turn on the pumps. More than forty years ago we used to flood the bogs to prevent frost damage; we now use sprinklers instead. When the water from the sprinklers freezes on the vines, it controls the temperature well enough to keep them from harm. It’s also necessary to check the surrounding reservoirs and canals to make sure that the water supply is sufficient to supply the pumps. That can take some time, and doesn’t always need to be done all at once. Depending on location and conditions–is the bog surrounded by woods? Where is the wind coming from? Is the sky clear or overcast?–some will be started earlier than others.

In recent years we’ve moved to an automation process to make this easier on our team, with a combination of automated and analog thermometers for optimal monitoring. The automated thermometer gives us the initial indication that the temperature is dropping. When it hits the first threshold, it sends the notification, and that’s when members of the frost team head out to look at the analog thermometers.

Holding the winter flood until later in the month means that we’ve not had many frost nights yet, but it won’t be too long now!

Flood removal – 2021

Spring has arrived and 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.

After the water comes off, a crew will install sprinklers (if they haven’t been installed already) and makes 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.

Once it’s all done, everything should be on track for the cold nights still to come!

Meet Our Researchers: Thierry Besançon

Welcome to the inaugural post of our new occasional feature: Meet Our Researchers! We’ve spent so much time talking about the excellent work being done at the Rutgers Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry & Cranberry Research that we thought it was time to learn a little more about the people behind the projects. This week: Dr. Thierry Besançon. For a close-up look at his work, check out the Weed Science Instagram account!

What drew you to your field/research focus?

I worked for 10 years in France on diseases and pest management research in stone fruit crops (peaches, plums, cherries…). So, I already had some type of connection with specialty crops before moving to the United States in 2010. In North Carolina, I was offered the opportunity to conduct research for getting a PhD, but I wanted to see and do something new… that’s when I decided to specialize in weed science. I thought it would be good to add weed science knowledge to what I already knew in pathology / entomology from my previous professional experience in Europe. When I joined Rutgers in 2016, I was delighted to be able to work again with specialty crops! But the most exciting thing was really working on cranberries… it’s a unique crop with very specific agronomic practices and very specific challenges, especially regarding weed control. Cranberry is a perennial crop, and most of the time, perennial crops have to deal with perennial weeds that are very challenging to control.

What do you consider your best accomplishment?

Over the last few years, I focused a large part of my research program to find solutions for preventing Carolina redroot (a perennial weed!) to outcompete cranberry vines in our New Jersey Cranberry bogs. Carolina redroot is a very troublesome weed… it competes with cranberry for light, nutrient and water and causes drastic yield and berry quality reduction. It is also very attractive as a food source for waterfowl and that is a problem because swans and geese can cause a lot of damage to cranberry vines when feeding on redroot! Yield losses caused by Carolina redroot average $800/acre. And Carolina redroot is only a problem in New Jersey cranberries as this weeds is virtually unknown further north or in Wisconsin!

Our weed science team spent a lot of time evaluating how Carolina redroot is affecting cranberry yield and quality and determining if some of the unique cranberry agronomic practices (flooding, irrigation, sanding…) may help suppressing Carolina redroot. We also evaluated different non-chemical and chemical options that can help controlling this noxious weeds. After 4 years of investigation, we know more about the biology and ecology of Carolina redroot, and we are now able to propose to the New Jersey cranberry growers a strategy to suppress this weed and restore the productivity of infested cranberry bogs. We still have many questions to answer… How does Carolina redroot propagate from bed to bed? Are we helping it to spread into non infested bogs when harvesting cranberries? Can we detect this weed early enough, so we don’t have to rely on using chemicals to control it?

What has been your biggest challenge?

Well, initial research on Carolina redroot was not easy because not many weed scientists have been investigating this species and we really started from scratch. Learning and understanding the cranberry cropping system was not easy because it is a very, very special crop that I could not compare to anything else I was familiar with. But I am lucky to have great people here in New Jersey in our grower community, with Ocean Spray, and Rutgers University who love cranberries and love transmitting their passion for this wonderful crop. I also have a great weed science team with my technician Baylee Carr, my graduate student Maggie Wasacz, and all the people who are working with us during the spring and summer months.

What are your long-term research goals?

With regards to cranberry, one of my long-term research goals is really to keep better understanding the ecology of some of our most troublesome weed species. We really need to know the details of their life and why they like our cranberry beds so much if we want to get a chance to be more efficient at controlling them in the future.

I am also interested at using new imagery and drone technology to improve the early detection of weed infestation in cranberry beds before weeds colonize entire beds after a few years. With early detection, we can focus our weed control strategies where we really need it. For some species, we could potentially avoid the use of herbicides and focus on non-chemical weed management strategies such as tarping, solarization or manual removal if we can detect the weeds early enough before they start getting a large-scale issue. I also think we’ll be looking at new nonchemical tools for controlling weeds… we have ideas regarding the use of electricity for killing the weeds and we may even have a portable prototype for testing this summer.

What do you enjoy most about working with the cranberry community?

All our New Jersey cranberry growers have been very supportive of my research program, and as a junior faculty, this is extremely important to know that my stakeholders are providing this support. I do not have a week without talking to one of our New Jersey growers or our Ocean Spray agronomists. We are doing applied research in my lab, and it is very important to stay connected with the reality and the challenges that growers are facing with weeds in their cranberry beds. That is very important to have this permanent link with our cranberry community because these discussions are feeding ideas for developing new research!

More personally, our New Jersey cranberry community has been very welcoming and kind with me. I remember one day in my 1st year when I forgot to fill up my gas tank and stopped in Chatsworth, knowing that I could not make it up to the research station. And gas pumps are not very common in the Pine Barrens. It happens that one of our grower give me a call when I was in Chatsworth. He immediately proposed to come to help me with a jerrycan! It is a nice feeling to know that you are working with great professionals but also people that will not hesitate to help you when needed.

*Photos courtesy of Thierry Besançon.