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

Community service: Holly Haines

In 2012, Holly Haines stgepped down from her position as Pine Island CFO to run the Haines Family Foundation full-time. 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, also supports open space and farmland preservation efforts and works closely with Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia.

Under Holly’s direction, the Foundation has done a lot of work with the local community, and last month her efforts were recognized by Habitat Philadelphia with the 2019 Patrick Monaghan Good Neighbor Award.

From their website:

We celebrate the commitment that each volunteer makes when they choose to engage with Habitat’s mission. The 2019 Patrick Monaghan Good Neighbor Award goes to Holly Haines for her commitment to Habitat that goes above and beyond the call of duty…We are grateful to Holly for her continued commitment to our work to ensure that every family has a decent place to live.

“The Monaghans were very proud that Holly was the recipient of the Patrick Good Neighbor Award,” says Frank Monaghan of Habitat Philadelphia. “We really appreciate everything the entire Haines family continues to do for our Habitat families.”

“While Holly is still an active cranberry grower with 55 acres of her own, since she’s retired as CFO of Pine Island Cranberry she’s done a great job continuing our father’s legacy of giving back to the community,” says CEO (and big brother) Bill Haines. “The family’s very proud of her, and I’m very proud of her.”

Fertilizer – young beds

Fertilizer applications have begun; it really must be spring!

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.

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.”

“We’re definitely trying new stuff all the time,” Mike Haines says. “Lately, we’ve been planting in pure sand and there’s not as much organic material in there, if any; there aren’t as many nutrients in the soil, if any. So we’re actually upping how much fertilizer we’re putting on; we’re going to see how it goes and then modify as needed. Our main concern is nitrogen; we’ve doubled our starting numbers on that and then we’ll see where we end up. Hopefully it grows too much; I’d rather that than too little!”

These early applications (and indeed, most of our fertilizer application) are all done by air (thank you, Downstown!), but Mike expects to do some work with some land methods next week.

Work anniversary: Emmanuel Colon

Last month was a milestone work anniversary for team stalwart Emmanuel Colon, who has now been here as a full-time team member for five years!

Emmanuel Colon (whose brother Israel is a valued long-time seasonal team member) was a six-year seasonal team member before starting with us full-time in April 2014 to assist Facilities Supervisor Mike Guest. He helped build the new well at Caley, and has excellent technical skills. Back then, during the harvest, he was also on the forklift crew at the packing house, which required a lot of hustle. Presently, in addition to the numerous other tasks he performs throughout the year, he assists the harvest team as a driver, hauling the crop to the Ocean Spray receiving station in Chatsworth.

“He’s a hard worker,” Mike said of Emmanuel at the time. “Not only is he willing to do anything, he’s also willing to stop and ask questions if it’s something he’s not sure about; he won’t just bluff his way through it. I never have to worry if I have to go somewhere; when Emmanuel is left in charge, things get done and they get done right.”

“Emmanuel is a great team member,” says CEO Bill Haines. “He’s very dependable, he works really hard, he’s taken every opportunity to increase his skills and make himself even more valuable to Pine Island, and I hope he’s here for many more years.”

Frost – 2019

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 night yet, says Gerardo Ortiz. “We went out one night this week around 3 A.M. It hasn’t been too bad. There’s a chance Saturday night and definitely Sunday is going to be one of the coldest night we’ve had. It’s going to be an early night and a long one, I think. We’ll see how it goes!”

Water drawdown – 2019

Spring is here for good, which means it’s time to start removing the winter flood! We’ve said it so often you can probably recite it with us by now: good water management is absolutely critical to growing cranberries. Growers rely on a clean, abundant supply to maintain the bogs year round. The key question, as everyone here knows by heart, is “Where is the water coming from, and where do you want it to go?”

Once the harvest is over, the bogs are flooded in order to protect the cranberry vines from the winter weather. When the warmer weather sets in, the bogs are drained so that the dormant vines awaken for the growing season; while cranberries are most frequently harvested using the “wet pick” method, they do not actually grow under water and thus need to go through the same growing cycle as any other fruit crop. The process, which we call “dumping water” is deceptively simple: a team member takes a gate hook (pictured below) and removes the boards that have been placed across the gate in the bog. (The boards are removed in a specific pattern to work with gravity and the natural flow of the water.) Once the boards have been pulled and placed on top of the gate, the water moves to the next bog along the ditches. This water returns to the reservoirs and canals in order to be reused for the next part of the cycle. It takes about 24 hours to drain completely.

“We had a lot of water this year and the reservoirs were really high,” says Matt Giberson. “So we decided to do an early draw on some systems, put the sprinklers in, and then re-flooded so we could prevent running frost early as well as focus on some other tasks, particularly the latest renovations. We’re slowly taking it all off now for good and will be finished by late next week or early the following week.”

That early draw does present some challenges, especially with repairs, since you can’t repair sprinklers when they’re underwater. 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. “The team in charge of repairs will need to do a little more now that all the water is coming off after the early draw, but we have plenty of guys available for that; it all works out!” Matt says.

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 coming up!

MFS Intensive Learning 2019 – Pine Barrens Experience

Two weeks ago Pine Island was pleased to once again host 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 morning started off with a brief history of the farm and the family before team members Matt Giberson and fifth generation grower Mike Haines gave the group a talk about a year on the farm.

Then it was time for a walk! Matt and Mike took the group over to one of our young beds, whwere we’ve removed the winter flood. This was a great chance for the group to actually get their feet in a bog and see up close how cranberry vines grow.

There was even a little bit of time to take a tour of our shop and check out some of our equipment!

“I like talking to this group every year,” Matt says. “It was a good opportunity for them to come out and see what we do, because how a cranberry farm works is a new experience for them. I think they enjoyed the equipment aspect a lot. It’s a shame that they can’t be here a little later when things are growing and it’s a little more interesting, but it’s a chance to see something that not a lot of people get to see in the off-season, and that’s just as important.”

Penn State Forest Fire

You may have heard that there was a bit of trouble in Penn State Forest last weekend. From the Asbury Park Press:

Firefighters with the state forest fire service worked tirelessly over the weekend to contain the 11,600-acre wildfire that’s been burning in the Pine Barrens since Saturday afternoon.

The raging fire spared homes and structures, but left 18 square miles of the Penn State Forest in Burlington County with less than 30 percent of its vegetation, according to Michael Achey, a warden with the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service.

The local community, of course, turned out in force, as they always do. Pine Island’s own facilities manager Louis Cantafio was on the scene for at least sixteen hours straight. “It was big. It really wanted to get across Route 72,” he says. “One of the best things, though, is you get there and there’s a whole bunch of cranberry growers: you’ve got your Sammy Moores, your Ben Bricks, your Tom Gerbers. A good portion of it was on the farm. The blueberry field on 72, the clear-cut on Red Road. . . we saved everything, which is what the forest fire service does. 15 miles of perimeter, interior, counter-firing. We were out there 16 hours; couldn’t leave until it was all fired in. Bill DeGroff and Tom Gerber were on the backfire side of the wildfire, and that all had to be finished. It really was a lot of work.”

“One of the most positive things about this weekend for me was watching the crew cohesion,” says Shawn Judy, Assistant Division Firewarden. “These men and women quickly responded to the scene, developed a plan, organized resources, contained the fire, and protected lives and valuable property without any injuries. There were many moving parts from multiple agencies involved with this incident. All of the pre-planning and relationships developed over the years by the Forest Fire Service paid off big time!”

“I can’t say enough good things about the forest fire service; they always do a good job,” says Pine Island CEO Bill Haines. “They work with us throughout the year, keeping us informed; in the past, they’ve helped us with controlled burns. This weekend, they did a great job protecting our forestry project and our blueberry fields. It’s really nice to have people who know what they’re doing providing that kind of service.”

Pine Island Cranberry would like to thank Shawn Judy, Gregory McLaughlin, Rusty Fenton, Jeremy Webber, Robby Gill, Gary Burton, Howard Somes, John Winberg, Salvatore Cicco, David Dorworth, Michel Achey, John Reith, Cindy Vallorio, Clifford Parker, Brian Christopher, Tom Gerber, Ben Brick, Trevor Raynor, Donald Knauer, John Earlin, Brian Corvinus, Dale Carrey, William Jubert, Bill Hamilton, Robert Stack, John Earlin Jr., Tyler Robinson, Walter Jones, Eugene Zazenski, William DeGroff, Chad Bozowski, Charles Poinsett, Roger Poinsett, Gary Poinsett, Alfred Sloan, Nate Pepper, Michael Haines, Doug Cutts, Eddy Carter, Marie Cook, BJ Sloan, Kenny Sloan, Sammy Moore III, Louis Cantafio, Dave Potowski, Brian Jones, Mike Gallagher, Rodney Haines, Chris Mathis, Walter Johnson, John Headly, Daniel Collamer, Craig Augustoni, Walt Earlin, David Achey, William Donnelly (and many more!) for all of their hard work protecting our community.

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!