ACGA Winter Meeting 2018

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 2018 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.

This year, the attendees from Pine Island were Mike Haines, Matt Giberson, Matt Stiles, and Justin Ross, and all of them found the presentations useful and informative. The top presentation for all four of them was the work being done by Jennifer Johnson-Cicalese on new varieties. “Jennifer’s was my favorite this time,” says Mike. “Improving rot resistance will keep the industry as viable as possible in NJ, and it sounds like they’re making progress on that.” Matt Giberson agrees: “That’s most important for our needs. If she finds out a way to produce a new variety with lower rot, it can really help us.”

Everyone was also interested in the report by Peter Oudemans on heat, with Matt being especially interested in the use of fake berries with heat sensors to measure internal temperature. It was also his first chance to hear from Thierry Besançon. “I’m glad he’s working on the red root issue,” Matt says. “We can see from Red Road how the different treatments are working, and it looks like he’s been making good progress.”

The final presentation of the day was the safety talk, delivered by someone other than Ray Samulis for the first time any of us can remember. “It was weird not having Ray there!” Matt says. “George did a good job though; that was good info on new regulations throughout the year and I was glad to see we’re a little ahead of the game with our current training program.”

“I thought it was a great meeting,” says Matt Stiles. “All of the presenters did a great job conveying useful information to us that we will be able to use throughout the growing season.” He is also grateful to everyone that helped put it together. So a huge thank you, as always to Dr. Cesar Rodriguez-Saona for yet another fantastic program! Cesar does a ton of work on this every year in addition to his research, and we’re all grateful for the opportunity.

“This was a great learning experience,” says newer Pine Island team member Justin Ross. “There’s a lot of good stuff going on and a lot of energy in the industry.”

Pine Island Team Profiles – Michael Vitale

This past October, Pine Island welcomed new Accounting Manager Mike Vitale to our team!

Mike has been here for three months now and seems to have settled in well. A lifelong resident of Manahawkin, Mike graduated from Stockton University, obtaining his accounting degree in 2013 and following that with a finance degree in 2017. “I first heard about the job via a recruiting firm,” he says. “I had family in Warren Grove who were cranberry growers a long time ago; working in the field piqued my interest and the position seemed to fit where I was at my professional career.”

He’s been greatly enjoying the position so far. “it’s a good environment here,” he says. “I never feel stressed out. The people here are great, and there’s never a problem asking questions. It’s been a good place to learn, especially for my first real job out of college. I can ask anyone here anything and it all feels pretty open.” Starting a new job in this industry in the middle of harvest can be tough, but Mike only noticed that in retrospect. “I didn’t realize how hectic things were until they quieted down!” he says. “But that’s good; it kept me busy, and it was interesting to learn about the process and see what goes into it.”

“Every week we work on something new,” says CFO Joann Martin, Mike’s immediate supervisor. “Because it’s yearend time we’re doing lots of different things besides our normal everyday tasks. Hopefully I’m being a good teacher!” She says Mike did very well getting thrown into the deep end at harvest time. “It always takes a little time to get all the people right, working out travel and vacation times and stuff like that. But Mike did fine, and he’s understanding the system well. He went through a little bit of QuickBooks training too, which shows his willingness to learn. Right now it’s all about learning the activities that we do at different times of year, and he’s actually done a lot to help us streamline some of our processes. He’s doing well for his first job out of college.”

We’re sure Mike will continue to be a great fit with our Pine Island team!

First snow of 2018

Not sure if anyone’s heard anything about it, but it’s been a bit cold recently and we’ve even had some snow in the region!

The cold has been a struggle even without the snow. “We haven’t been doing any sanding, obviously,” says Matt Giberson. “At least, not until it thaws out, and in order to do that we need a good rain to melt the ice. We’re at least a week or two from that even happening right now.”

The farm ended up getting about ten to twelve inches in yesterday’s storm, and the team did a lot of work beforehand to get ready. “Some of it was already done as part of the usual routine,” says Louis Cantafio. “But we made sure everything was buttoned up. And in this cold, we’re trying to warm stuff up longer, but otherwise it’s steady as she goes.”

Wednesday was all about storm prep. “We’ve been keeping an eye on the models but you never know what you’re going to get,” said Matt. “We could get anything from one to four inches to one to four feet. But we’re getting the loaders ready and will drop them off with Junior, Wilfredo, Caesar, and Joel so when it hits we can start clearing immediately.” Water, of course, is always our top priority. “The winter flood is on everywhere, and we’ve got all the wells shut down. But it’s been a struggle because of the ice forming; it’s hard to judge what the natural stream is when everything freezes up on us. We’ll keep breaking any ice forming when the snow and the wind blowing into the gates, but we’ll see.”

Our team is also doing as little work outside as possible. “We’re keeping the guys inside because it’s going to be brutal for next couple days. When it warms up we can do outside work on the dams, but when it’s 3 degrees out it limits our outdoor work,” Matt says. “So we’ll keep everyone indoors until the temperature rises a little; we’ll work on sprinklers, build gates, do some clean up, get the camp ready for next year when the seasonal guys come back.”

It’s not easy, but our team will keep doing whatever it takes, whatever the weather!

Merry Christmas 2017

Another fun holiday post brought to you by the best in the business: our Pine Island Cranberry team! Once again, we asked our hard-working crew what they wanted Santa to bring them for Christmas, since they’ve all been so good.

(Except for that Louis guy, sometimes.)

Coco Mercado:

I would like more tools!

Larry Wedemeyer:

I want a new tig welder for the shop.

Ernie Waszkiewicz:

I’d like a new front seat for his service truck.

Louis Cantafio:

I have such a rich life that I do not want for anything!

Bryan vonHahmann:

Good health and happiness for my family!

Jonathan Irizarry-Vasquez:

I would like a girlfriend.

Joel DeJesus:

I would like a new car.

Joséan Hernandez-Vargas:

I would like a garage!

Vanessa DeJesus:

I would like more Hydremas…and I’m still waiting for my pink one!

Harry Mick:

I would like a new diesel truck.

Blondie Cruz-Soto:

I would like a Eagles jacket. GO BIRDS!!!

Caesar Colon:

I’d like a new Eagles hoodie and cap.

Scott Mattle:

I would like a new jet ski.

Matthew Giberson:

I have everything I need! However…I’d like Bill to get Nadine a Ford Raptor.

Jeremy Fenstermaker:

I would like a new front drive shaft for my Jeep, and for Tom Brady to retire.

Joann Martin:

I would like to ask that everyone gets to wake up on Christmas morning with the ones they love the most. A box that moves and barks under the tree would be nice too…

Stefanie Haines:

I want Nick Foles to get us a miracle.

Matt Stiles:

For Christmas I would love for everyone to have a great holiday with family and friends and a new GREEN tractor!

Mike Haines:

I want to get my Jeep all set and ready to go so I can go have some fun in it.

A very exciting quail project update!

This week, Pine Island Cranberry was honored to receive a Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in the “Healthy Ecosystem” category! NJ Audubon nominated Pine Island earlier this year, “having seen first-hand how PICC has undertaken active habitat management, producing numerous benefits for wildlife and water quality.”

From the DEP website:

This award is presented to a nominee that demonstrates experience in programs or techniques that have resulted in the restoration, protection and enhancement of the State’s ecological resources. These resources include wetlands, estuaries and coastal areas, as well as non-game and/or threatened and endangered species.

Specifically, the award is related to our work maintaining our property via our own best agricultural practices as well as a good forest stewardship plan, which ended up being conducive to maintaining the critical habitat needed for the Northern bobwhite quail:

The Pine Island Cranberry Company (PICC) in Chatsworth, Burlington County, has had a DEP-approved Forest Stewardship Plan in place since 2001. This plan has produced successional habitat suitable for quail and other plant and animal species. Because of that success, PICC was chosen to be used as a study site for a multi-state Northern Bobwhite Quail Recovery Study, in hopes of restoring the Bobwhite population. This population had plummeted to levels of near-extinction in New Jersey and a more than 80 percent decline nationwide in the past 40 years, according to the National Audubon Society. Beginning in 2015, PICC, along with other study project partners, did the first release of wild Bobwhite brought from Georgia to PICC. Since then, 240 wild birds have been released and tracked at PICC, 39 nests have occurred, 116 confirmed chicks have hatched, birds were confirmed to over-winter from year to year, and confirmed nest successes occurred. The result of PICC’s successful land management methods led to the first-ever federal allocation this year for quail habitat restoration in New Jersey.

“We are proud to to receive this award, and are equally proud to be working with such great organizations as New Jersey Audubon, Pine Creek Forestry, and Tall Timbers,” says CEO Bill Haines. “We’ve always taken care of the resources we have, and we’ll continue to do it. It’s not only good for business; it’s also the right thing to do.”

Winter flood 2017

The winter flood has begun!

The cranberry growing season lasts from April to November; the fruiting buds mature during the winter dormancy period. During the dormant season, severe winter weather could harm or even kill cranberry vines, which is why growers must take preventative measures to protect their crop. 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. When vines go dormant, they turn burgundy in color:

Our winter flood program starts with making sure the water in the reservoirs is at the level we need. If there has no been significant rain to get the reservoirs to flooding level, we start our wells. We will continue to use the wells to maintain the reservoirs and the stream needed to get the bogs flooded.

The next step is placing boards in the gates to start bringing the water level up in the bogs, much like we do to prep for the flooding at harvest in the fall. “There’s a lot to know. How the water works, where it’s coming from, where it has to go, how to move it the most efficient way,” says Matt Giberson. “It’s not something you learn 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.

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.

It is also necessary to make sure we are not losing water anywhere. “Sometimes you can hear the water coming through a gate that’s supposed to hold it,” Matt says. “It’s the same as running diesel fuel; it’s a big waste, and we need to try to stop it or slow it down.” He does this by adding sand or even grass in front of the leaking boards, as sometimes the sand can wash away too quickly.

Once we are flooded, our team needs to constantly monitor the bogs to make sure there are no leaks, that the water level remains steady, and that the stream remains constant. The weather is also a factor: no rain for a long period of time will shrink the reservoirs and wells may need to be started to maintain the water level in the bogs. Matt says, “If it gets cold enough for the water to freeze, I also need to check to see if I have to break any ice to keep the stream flowing, especially on the southeast gates.”

Team communication is crucial to the process, adds Jeremy Fenstermaker, because “an action in one section will have a huge effect somewhere else. It’s important to learn the whole process but it’s even more important to know how it all ties together.”

Sanding young beds

Our team got a bit of an early start this year and began our annual sanding process on Monday.

Sanding is a fundamental component of our Pine Island Integrated Crop Management (PIICM) program, helping us manage the relationship between water, soil, weather, disease, insects, weeds, and nutrition. Sanding is a process where we apply a thin layer of sand on the bog surface every four years on a rotating basis: one inch for established bogs, a half-inch for young bogs. This procedure helps improve growth and yield by stimulating the development of new uprights (covering the runners leads to new root development and creates a more healthy vine) while also suppressing disease and reducing insects (by burying weed seed, spores, and insect eggs). It also improves soil drainage while at the same time absorbing and releasing heat so that frost danger in spring is lessened. This increases our efficiency by lowering the need for extra plant nutrition as well as saving water by cutting down frost irrigation times.

Currently the only beds being sanded are the two-year young beds. “For the young beds you put sand on top of the runners, in order to promote new root growth and get new uprights to come up,” explains ICM manager Mike Haines. “It’s just a part of maintaining a healthy bed. And it helps establish young beds and produce more quickly.” On new beds we use twice the amount of fertilizer we put on a producing bed for those first two years. “There’s been a lot of vegetative growth, which is what we want, so now we’re looking for healthy upright growth.”

The team made a couple of minor schedule adjustments based on growth. “We planted Centennial in July 2016, so it’s more like eighteen months instead of two years,” Mike says. “Those have grown so well that they’re pretty close to two-year beds, so we decided to go ahead. Everything else we planted there in August and September didn’t grow as quickly, so we let it be.” He and his team have also made a couple of experimental changes this year: “We’ve been doing a half-inch of sand on two-year beds, but we’re doing a good amount of acreage with an inch this year. We switched to a full inch on the established beds farmwide over the past few cycles and have liked the results. The new beds at Black Rock just grew like crazy, so we thought that could work. The rest of them we weren’t so sure, so we’re experimenting at Warehouse #2 and #3 as well as at Centennial #1 with an inch and doing the rest of the young acreage with the half-inch. That’s a good amount of acreage to compare for next year and see what we like better.”

Mike also plans to speak with Dr. Nick Vorsa at Rutgers about the best way to get new hybrids to establish and produce. And once these two year beds have been sanded, they will move to the usual four-year rotation we use for the established beds!

Thanksgiving 2017

Last year’s Thanksgiving post was so well-received, we thought we’d try it again! This week, the hardest-working team in the business tells you what they’re thankful for.

COO Bryan vonHahmann:

I am thankful for: being part of a great team and completing another year, spending time with family and friends through the holidays, and the new challenges that lie ahead!

Facilities/Equipment Manager Louis Cantafio:

I’m thankful that we have Stefanie working hard to make us all look good!

[It’s a tough job some days, but I’m here for you, Louis! Ed.]

Blue Team leader Matt Stiles:

I am thankful to help produce such a wonderful and healthy fruit like the cranberry for people around the world!

Manager of Operations Matt Giberson:

I’m thankful that Bill and company don’t mind my “Australian” accent. I am also thankful for all the great men and women that work at Pine Island.

Seasonal team member Sergio Sanchez:

I’m thankful that Pine Island has the confidence in me to provide me with new and exciting jobs daily.

Seasonal team member Benjamin Perez-Martinez:

I’m thankful for the opportunity to work here.

Seasonal team member Daniel “Cowboy” Lopez-Leon:

I’m thankful for everything, but most importantly that God sent me someone special to provide for me and my family.

Seasonal team member Felix Padilla-Lopez:

I’m thankful to be given the opportunities to learn new innovative jobs on renovation.

Seasonal team member Waldy Blanco:

I’m thankful for the opportunity to come back as a seasonal employee. Also I am grateful for the opportunity to take on important jobs throughout the farm whether it be checking the water or frost.

CFO Joann Martin:

I am thankful for all the experiences and opportunities that I have been given here at Pine Island. I am thankful for my husband and daughter that I get to see every day. I am also very thankful for Amazon Prime!

Admin Debra Signorelli:

I’m thankful for my two beautiful girls and the love and laughter we share together as well as being fortunate enough to work with a group of such dynamic individuals!

Team member Mickey Mercado:

I’m thankful for my family and health.

Orange Team leader Gerardo Ortiz:

I’m thankful for my dog.

Team member Junior Colon:

I’m thankful for my family and health and job.

Team member Wilfredo Pagan:

I’m thankful for my beautiful family and health and being a Pine Island employee for 38 years!

Bog Renovations Manager Steve Manning:

I’m thankful for my wife and kids being by my side all the time.

Accounting Manager Michael Vitale:

I’m thankful for my friends, family, and new opportunities.

Social Media Coordinator Stefanie Haines:

I’m truly grateful that this amazing team are writing the blog for me this week! Thanks, all; you truly are the best in the business, and you prove it each and every day.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Pine Island Cranberry!

Harvest’s end – 2017

Pine Island Cranberry wrapped up the harvest early last week, and our seasonal team members are on their way home after another job well done!

Our team’s hard work wasn’t an unqualified success, however. “It was a disappointing season all in all,” says CEO Bill Haines. “The crop was less than our target in terms of barrels per acre. We had held back, so we didn’t expect to have as big a harvest, but we were still 10% below our target. And the fruit quality not as good as we wanted, particularly on the young beds. That was disappointing.”

It’s not all bad news, he says. “We had an efficient harvest. The team worked well together, our equipment worked well, and over the course of the whole season, we learned a lot.”

We’d also like to extend a special shout-out to crew leaders Gerardo Ortiz and Matt Stiles, who did a great job this (and every) year. They managed a tough job with proficiency and excellent problem-solving skills: water management, fluctuating weather, ever-changing personnel and equipment needs, and everything else a good manager needs to do to run an efficient cranberry harvest!

Bill remains optimistic for next year: “One thing about growing cranberries: it’s like baseball. There’s always next season. And we’re already training for the next season.”

Pest prevention

Cranberry growers have all kinds of pests to deal with, and one of the toughest of those might be surprising to some people: the tundra swan. Tundra swans migrate to the area every year from Alaska and northwestern Canada and are particularly fond of red root, a weed that competes with cranberry vines for nutrients. When they fly in to feed, they not only tear out the red root, they also tear out vines and leave enormous holes that damage the beds themselves.

Since the swans are a protected species, growers have had to come up with a solution to keep them away from the crop. At Pine Island our PIICM team has been installing swan string for several years. The strings help keep the swans out of the bog by limiting the space available. “Swans are like a commercial airliner,” CEO Bill Haines says. “Having the strings up disrupts their attempt to both land and take off again.” Not all of the bogs are strung; our team maps them out where we have found red root and where the swans have been spotted. Just three acres of swan damage can give us a loss of 200 barrels per acre, or even more, depending on the variety. That takes three years to come back.

When setting up swan string, the team places rebar in the ground along the longer sides of a bog, about every 75 feet. On the ends of the bog, the team walks it out and determines how many lines they’ll need to run lengthwise though the center. Once the rods are laid out on the dam, a team of three to five people gets into the bog and walks the string across. Once the entire bog is strung, the team goes back in and puts up poles, which are used to keep the strings out of the water so that they don’t freeze. They’re placed in a checkered pattern, not necessarily on every line. The poles can either be cedar posts or recycled irrigation pipe. In addition to the recycling/environmental aspect, reusing the irrigation line is lighter and easier to handle.

Last year, we added a new method: an Agrilaser. From their website:

Deterring pest birds from open and semi-open spaces has long posed a costly and nagging challenge to property owners and managers. While noisemakers like propane cannons can scatter bird pests, they can also be disruptive and must be repeated often to keep birds from coming back. Lethal means of bird control—poisons, pellet guns and inhumane traps—are illegal in many areas, as many birds are protected by law. Bird B Gone’s Agrilaser® provides an effective, humane solution. It uses advanced, patented optical laser-beam technology to harmlessly repel pest birds over great distances—up to 2,000 meters. The handheld device is silent and completely portable. Pest birds react to the green beam as they would an approaching car, so they flee the area. Yet, unlike some deterrent devices, birds will not get used to the laser beam’s implied threat.

With some trial and error around timing and placement, our team found that it does have some effect.

This year, the team is again trying both methods! “Albert [Torres] has been going out and measuring the distances and putting stakes in ahead of the team,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “He’ll get the bogs staked out ahead of time, which makes it easier for when the rest of the crew comes. The crew has also streamlined their process over the years and have gotten much quicker; they’re doing a good job. We’re trying the laser treatment again this year as well. It’s going to be installed in the middle of farm, and we’re going to heavily monitor it. Our expectations are that it will keep that middle section ‘clean’, so we’re not trying string there at all.” He notes, however, that the team did find some beds with new swan damage during the growing season, and will be installing string in those locations. “What we really need to do is fix the root cause, which is red root,” he says. “But now we have Thierry [Besançon, the weed science specialist at the Rutgers extension] working on that. He’s been out here this year as we’ve been harvesting, trying to capture seedlings as they float from bog to bog, as well as experimenting with treatment applications and timing. Hopefully in next couple of years we can really start to attack it.”