Land management: prescribed burning

It’s the burning season again in the Pine Barrens! While that might sound frightening, it just means it’s time to start doing some needed forest maintenance via prescribed burning.

Per the New Jersey Forest Fire Service:

The primary purpose of prescribed burning in New Jersey is to reduce the hazardous accumulations of forest fuels. This aids in the prevention of wildfires, reduces the intensity of the fires, and also provides a foundation for safer, more effective fire suppression and protection operations.

Pine Island has been a long-time proponent of this method and works closely with the fire service and our forester when it comes to this crucial method of forest maintenance. “Pine Island has a very long history of using prescribed burns to protect life and property on their land as well as the surrounding area,” says Bob Williams of Pine Creek Forestry. “In addition, it is used to sustain or enhance the overall ecological health of their forest. Fire is a critical component of sustaining this forest and used often in the farm’s forest management program. These forests need fire; it is as essential as rain or sunshine to the life of the forest. Native Americans used fire to sustain this forest as well as most forests across North America for millennia, and many plants and animals need fire to provide critical habitat components in their lives.” He understands the concern, but reassures people that all is well: “Weather permitting, people will see many smoke columns rising from the pinelands area in the coming weeks with no cause for alarm.”

With constant communication, our motivated team, and the able assistance of neighboring growers and fire experts, Pine Island is more than ready to keep up the the constant endeavor of caring for the place where we live, work, and grow!

Bog renovation – winter 2020

While the rest of our team is hard at work on our usual winter tasks such as sanding, our bog renovation team is also keeping busy!

Bog renovation is a time-consuming and capital-intensive but necessary project that will increase both yield and quality by improving bog and irrigation design. Effective bed drainage is critical, especially in New Jersey, where the humid climate can provide a favorable environment for Phytophthora cinnamomi, a known cause of root rot. Other improvements to the water system will include new gates, rebuilt ditches, and relocation of pumps, if necessary. As part of our irrigation redesign, and with the redesign of some of the beds, it’s sometimes necessary to make some changes in order to maximize water flow to the pump. Relocation of the pump houses is also helpful for improved access, both for refueling and repairs.

“We’re moving along with this year’s acreage,” says bog renovation manager Steve Manning. “We’re working on Panama and Bell out at Sim Place and Red Road on the home farm. The sand’s in at Panama, we’re starting to put the sand in at Bell, and Red Road is up next.”

One of our biggest projects, however, is just getting started.

A couple of years ago, Pine Island bought back some of the acreage known as Birches, originally purchased by our founder, Martin L. Haines, in the late 19th century. Our team did some dry harvesting as an experiment in fall 2018, and now our focus has turned to upgrades! We’ve removed some structures that were declared unsafe (the original packing house remains and won’t be going anywhere!) and our bog renovation team has started work on the beds.

“We were just over there today figuring out our plan of attack,” Steve says. “The water’s off, the old vines have been burned, and now we’re pushing them off and starting to pile them to the side before we take the next step.”

That’s just the beginning! We’re going to document every step of the process of bringing the original Haines family land to maximum production and efficiency.

Welcome to Lindsay Wells-Hansen!

Ocean Spray scientist Dan Schiffhauer retired at the end of 2019, and the cranberry community is very pleased to welcome his successor, Lindsay Wells-Hansen! Lindsey, a south Jersey native who earned her undergrad degree at Temple University, comes back home to us from the cranberry community in Wisconsin (where she earned her Ph.D at the University of Wisconsin) and we’re very happy to have her. She’s been making the rounds to meet all of the local growers, and this week was able to sit down at Pine Island with Bill Haines, Mike Haines, and Bryan vonHahmann to talk about our needs for the growing season.

“I think what I’m enjoying most so far about being back in New Jersey is being so close to family again,” Lindsay says. “My husband and I certainly miss our friends and family in Wisconsin, but having the opportunity to be near my side of the family while working in a field that I love is really special. I’m also super excited to be back in the Pine Barrens; I’m a true ‘piney’ at heart, and I absolutely love hiking in and exploring the unique landscape that the Pine Barrens have to offer. Oh, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the much milder winter temperatures again!”

There are also some regional differences beyond climate! “Although my position here is similar in many ways to the one I held before, I’m experiencing the ‘usual’ challenges that come along with any career change,” Lindsay says. “Establishing new relationships with growers and other colleagues, determining the trajectory of my extension and research programs here, et cetera. One of the cool things about cranberries is that they’re grown a little bit differently in every growing region. While I’m generally familiar with the growing practices here in New Jersey, I’m more familiar with the practices in Wisconsin, so one challenge is going to be learning all of the ins-and-outs of cranberry growing in NJ. Growers have figured out what works best for them on their farm, and it’s always fun to learn why things are done a certain way on one farm or in one growing region but not another. These are all great challenges to have, and I’m very excited to get to know each of the growers, to learn from them, and to better understand their needs so that I can be as helpful as possible in the coming years.”

Linsday was also able to attend ACGA winter meeting last week, and found it enormously helpful. “Not only is the meeting a great opportunity to hear a summary of results from all of the research that was conducted over the past growing season(s), but it also provides a wonderful venue for getting to know growers better. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-attended the meeting was, and being there gave me the opportunity to meet growers that I hadn’t met before and to talk further with those that I had met. The NJ cranberry growers seem to be a very tight-knit group, and everyone has been extremely welcoming so far, which means so much to me and is certainly making the transition into my new role easier.”

One of her favorite aspects of this job is that she gets to be in the field working with growers on a daily basis in an effort to help them produce the best crop possible. “I’m really looking forward to establishing closer relationships with the growers and to getting out in the field again soon once the water comes off! I’m also very much looking forward to working closely with the researchers at Rutgers on some exciting research projects.”

Harvest time is a popular time of year for visitors, but for people who work in the industry, there’s something of interest all year round. Lindsay’s favorite time of year is during bloom: “There’s just something really serene about kneeling in the middle of a cranberry bed that’s in full bloom listening to the constant buzz of thousands of pollinators while watching them work the flowers (unless, of course, you run into some angry bees… then it’s anything but serene!). It’s an exciting time knowing that berries are soon to follow!”

On our part, Pine Island Cranberry is very happy to have a Jersey girl come back home. “We’re really excited to have Lindsay in New Jersey,” says Bill Haines. “We know that she did a great job in Wisconsin, and we’re looking forward to working with her here.”

ACGA Winter Meeting 2020

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 2020 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.

Matt Giberson was particularly interested in Dr. Nick Vorsa’s talk on hybrids: “I thought the cross breeding with the hybrid varieties that have the powderlike skin similar to blueberries is an interesting approach to help with fruit quality.” He also liked the presentation on machine learnin by Joe Kawash. “I also think the machine thinking process of fruit quality is something that would not just benefit Ocean Spray, but also the grower. If we had the ability to screen fruit on site to give instant results, it would be able to allow us to plan better for harvest.”

Our team was also pleased to get an update from Dr. Thierry Besançon on one of our most persistent weed issues. “It was good to get a recommendation, with data to support it, on how to better control red root,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann.

Mike Haines agrees: “I really enjoyed both talks on weed control at the meeting. I’m looking forward to trying out Thierry’s suggestions this coming growing season, because it sounds like that could be a big step in attacking our red root problem. And Katie Ghantous’ presentation was really interesting, as well. She came down from Massachusetts and talked about the growing problem of moss in cranberry bogs, and that’s something I’ve started to see here and there in New Jersey. It’s always interesting to hear different perspectives and hear what’s new in the other growing regions.”

Mike Scullion was also fascinated by the machine learning discussion. “It really sounds like a promising method for developing new varieties for the future,” he says. “And I like how he simplified the algorithm for us to better understand how it works. I’m excited to see what they come up with!”

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!

Winter work

In addition to sanding, our team is working on some of our other usual winter tasks. Running three sanding crews means that a lot of team members are busy, but there are still other things to do!

Harvest time can be tough on our dams, as well as wet weather, so our team has been doing some maintenance work on them this week. Some dams are really only used during harvest, and if they get any ruts in a heavy rain, it’s usually fine. But the ones everyone uses most can deteriorate quickly, pushing out both water and sand; proper maintenance now is much more efficient than trying to fix the problem later. In some instances, all we really need is to pass over it with the scraper.

Our bog renovation, of course, is always ongoing, and when it’s wet outside, some team members will be indoors assembling sprinklers for the new renovation as well as repairing old sprinklers: replacing worn out nozzles, springs, and sprinkler heads.

Well-maintained, consistently available equipment and facilities that are fully operational are instrumental to Pine Island’s daily efficiency and the success of our operation. The facilities/equipment team usually has several projects going at once, assisting the sanding operation, the bog renovation team, and working on building upkeep, as well as doing all the necessary equipment maintenance in order to be prepared for the growing season and beyond.

Sanding 2020

Winter tasks are well underway! The winter flooding has begun, which means that it’s once again time to start sanding.

sanding-2016-141

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 base of the roots strengthens the root system 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.

The routine usually remains the same every year. First, we check water levels: our team needs to make sure the water is the right depth so our sanding barge doesn’t get stuck on any vines or worse, tear them out. Also, the sand needs to be as pure as possible in order to prevent soil compaction (which can restrict water and limit growth) so we screen our sand before using it on the barge to take out any clay, stones, or other debris which could cause problems.

Sand-Pit-004

Our team begins to prep a couple of days beforehand by checking to see how much the water level needs to come up. The day before the crew arrives, a supervisor will get the water to sanding level (high enough to cover all vines) and measure out the distance the sander will travel. The crew will begin to sand on the deepest side. The water level can then be adjusted if necessary, which helps with dam conservation. They also send the necessary equipment out to the sanding location. A tractor with a winch is on one side of the bog, ready to move the length of the bog; an excavator is on the opposite side of the bog. The cable from the winch is stretched across the bog, through the sander (which has been lifted and put in the bog next to the excavator), and connected to the excavator.

sanding-2016-037

sanding-2016-026

The process itself is simple: a truck is loaded with sand, then heads over to the bog being sanded, backs up to the excavator, and drops the load into our specially built sandbox (designed to improve efficiency and reduce waste). The excavator operator then loads the hopper of the sander, while the sander operator moves along the cable, adjusting the opening for the sand to fall. The process is repeated, with the excavator and tractor moving forward the length of the bog together.

sanding-2016-129

They’ve also been trying a new method for the edges. Because the sanders can only come up to the dam to for a fresh load of sand, there’s a distance from the ditches at both the beginning and end of the dam which can be missed. We’d purchased a used side-discharge manure spreader to fill in the gaps a couple years ago and retrofitted it to slow it down, then did a fair amount of experimenting. “We weren’t really impressed with the results,” says manager Mike Haines. Now the team is trying a new method, similar to the basic sanding method, using equipment that we already have on hand. “We’re keeping an eye on it and will make adjustments to the barge if we think that we’re getting a lot of overlap and putting too much down.”

Our team has already hit approximately one-third of their sanding targets for the year! “The weather’s been really cooperative,” Mike says. “The barges have had to break through some ice in the mornings, and we missed a day this week because the sand was freezing, but we’re running three crews and that’s really helping us move along.”

Pine Island Team Retirements: Jorge Morales

It’s hard to believe, but this week we said goodbye to Jorge Morales , who is retiring after 43 years here at Pine Island Cranberry!

Jorge started with us as a seasonal team member in 1976, and moved to full time in November the following year. In that time, Jorge has done every job there was to do on this place. CEO Bill Haines tried putting that into numbers for the assembled team. “Jorge mowed a lot of dams for us. When you think of how we have over 100 miles of dams, and some years we mow them four times, he’s easily mowed thousands of miles of dams. He’s hauled dirt and gravel, sand for bogs, and cranberries to Chatsworth or to our own packing house, and that adds up to thousands of miles in 43 years. Between frost nights and heat watch, he’s unplugged hundreds, if not thousands of sprinklers. He’s helped put in hundreds of gates. And that doesn’t include building bogs or installing irrigation. In 1975, we put in our first ever irrigation system. So since 1977, Jorge has actually helped install irrigation for the entire farm; as we’ve rebuilt or refurbished, he’s helped with that too.”

But Bill saved the most amazing numbers for the end. “Jorge’s first harvest was in 1976 as a seasonal guy. Since that first crop in 1976, he’s helped us pick 8,792,648 barrels of cranberries. Now, that’s an important number to us in the industry, but not everyone knows what it means; it’s even more impressive when you find out that it means Jorge has helped harvest 879,264,800 pounds of cranberries over 43 years.”

“It’s impressive, the amount of work he’s helped us to do,” Bill said to the team this week at Jorge’s farewell lunch. “Along with his wife Mildred, he’s raised a family of four kids – and Mildred deserves a lot of credit for that – and through all of that, he’s been cheerful no matter what we ask him to do. No matter the weather, through the heat, the cold, heavy rain, or snow, he’s always positive, always cheerful, always raised the atmosphere and the morale of the whole team.”

“You can be proud of the fact that you were a part of this team for so many years,” Bill said to Jorge. “You’re part of the family that’s been here for so long; your father-in-law, your brothers, Mildred’s brothers. I’m proud of the fact that people like you work for Pine Island; what you’ve contributed we’ll never forget. You’ve made a difference, Jorge, and we all appreciate it.”

And what did Jorge, the man who is never, ever short of a word, say in his address to us all?

“Thank you, everybody.”

Thank you, Jorge! We’ll all miss you very much, and wish you nothing but the best. Come back and see us!

Preventative measures: swans

A niche crop like cranberries often has niche challenges! 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 harmless solution to keep them safely away from the bogs. 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.

This year, our team installed almost one million feet of swan string, which come out to about one hundred and eighty-seven miles. That’s a lot of walking!

Our team has also adopted a backup method in the past few years: 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 plan is to use the laser during the brief period that string has temporarily been removed from the beds we’re sanding. “You’d think they’d stay away with all the equipment around, but they don’t,” says Matt Giberson. “But since it’s been effective the past couple of years, it’s good to have a backup to keep both the bogs and the birds safe.”

Winter flood 2019

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.”

A Team Thanksgiving

Our annual team thank you post! What are we grateful for this year?

Bryan vonHahmann:

Spending time with family and friends through the holidays, being part of a great team and completing another year, and new challenges that lie ahead.

Louis Cantafio:

In reviewing all of these things that I have been thankful for, I realized that it’s not my individual successes, but rather the successes of our shop team – a group of individuals that is responsible for building, fixing and maintaining over 280 pieces of moving equipment as well as over 100 diesel-powered irrigation pumps. This group of individuals ensures on a daily basis that the rest of our teams have the operational equipment they need for PICC to be one of the largest cranberry producers in the world. Yes, that’s it! – I am most thankful for the opportunity to work with such a talented, motivated and successful team! (and I like that they make me look good!) Thank you!

Matt Giberson:

I’m thankful for a safe harvest and thankful to be a farmer.

Mike Scullion:

I’m thankful for my new puppy, Kali, and my new camper, and I’m looking forward to many camping trips!

Joann Martin:

I am thankful that our softball sister Sammy Thompson came home from a 307 day hospital stay while battling leukemia and will be spending Thanksgiving in her own home with her family. #sammystrong

Jeremy Fenstermaker:

I am thankful that my family at home has grown up around here and understands what it takes to work here. I am grateful for their love and support.

Debra Signorelli:

I’m thankful for so many things. . .my family, friends, and co-workers make this walk a joyous one! I wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving.


Stef Haines

As always, I’m grateful that the team is willing to step up and write the blog this week, as well as their perpetual willingness to let me interrupt their work with cameras and visitors!

Happy Thanksgiving, from all of us to all of you!