Picking methods

In the time since we launched this site, our team has improved many of our processes in the interests of efficiency. The most visible changes, of course, have been to our harvest methods.

Since the 60s, when Bill Haines, Sr. moved entirely to water harvesting, we’ve been using the reel harvesters. Since 2014, however, as our team continues to renovate older beds to improve drainage and yield, we’ve been relying more and more on the Gates Harrow. The Gates Harrow is not as hard on the plants as the reel harvesters, and our renovation program is geared for increased efficiency by being user-friendly for equipment like this. But there are still older beds in the center of the farm that are easier to pick using the former method.

When it comes to picking with the reels, there’s a lot to think about; it’s not as easy as just putting the machines in the water. There’s a method to it in order to keep from damaging the fruit or the vines. The difficulty fluctuates slightly due to bog size, weeds, and terrain, as well as other variables such as water levels, crop size, and even berry variety. Some berries do not float to the surface as easily and remain under the vine canopy, which is why they stagger machines in the water in order to both maximize yield and minimize damage to the vines. Each bog is picked in a specific pattern according to terrain, and the picking crew has to carefully move their harvesters around stakes which have been arranged for maximum operational efficiency. Following this pattern allows for minimal damage to the vines. The crew leader also needs to stay ahead of his crew and check for ditches, for everyone’s safety.

The Gates Harrow is a simple machine set up to cover more ground. At the front is a rod which holds vines down to the ground; as the tractor moves forward, the berries pop off the stems and roll up over the tines on the rake. It’s not as hard on the plants as our usual method, and our renovation program is geared for increased efficiency by being user-friendly for equipment like this. It also picks a lot cleaner; it knocks almost everything off the vines. With the standard reels you’ll still find some berries left here and there. There are also some fuel savings with just one tractor running. It’s also less labor intensive; we typically run a six man picking crew and their target is about 12.5 acres per day. On a more level set of bogs, they can do more than that, but with a Gates Harrow a two-man crew can get through 40 acres. It’s a lot more efficient.

GoPro Gates Harrow from Pine Island Cranberry on Vimeo.

With the majority of our older bogs finished, we’re looking to make a strong finish with the harrows in the next week or so!

Harvest: Slowing down

The sun’s been shining (mostly!), the leaves are beginning to change, and the cooler October temperatures are finally starting to stick. But it’s not been consistent, so our team has slowed down a little bit.

The slightly warmer weather has meant that we’re not getting all the color that we want, so our team went down to one crew last week and even got a weekend off! Fortunately, this week has been an improvement.

“We were going to run three crews this week but the Stevens beds still have a higher white percentage than we want, so we decided to hold off for another week on those,” says operations manager Matt Giberson. “Right now we have two crews picking about 20 acres a day, mostly the Early Blacks and the Ben Lears we have left. We’re also dealing with frost this week, and our start temperature is a bit lower because we’re trying to give them as much as they’ll take. We’re just waiting for that magic number and hoping that changes color on the Stevens underneath the vine canopy.”

Our team is looking forward to a strong finish, and in the meantime, we’ll continue to do whatever it takes to bring the fruit in!

Ocean Spray: From Bog to Bottle 2019

Harvest time also means it’s time for one of our favorite annual traditions here at Pine Island Cranberry: a visit from George Giorno of Ocean Spray on his “Bog to Bottle” tour! George comes to see us every year, along with various account executives from some of Ocean Spray’s wholesale customers. This year, we were happy to see that George brought Greg McCann of Advantage Solutions for his fifth visit, as well as Jeremy Mitchell (also from Advantage) for his second visit and Michael Janeway (Category Manager Beverage/Juice) and Stephen Fox (Category Manager Dried Fruit) from Wakefern.

CEO Bill Haines met the group upon their arrival and walked them through a brief history of the farm and some of the changes we’ve made recently, and then it was off to see our harvest crew hard at work!

We’re taking things a little slow this week as we wait for the color, so the group wasn’t able to see the harrow in action, but they did see a crew on the reel harvesters and watched from the top of the bogside cleaner as the gathering crew finished one bed and sent the truck up the road to the receiving station. They also got to see our latest renovation at different growth stages, as well as a brief discussion about our forestry project and the quail initiative.

“Even though this was my fifth trip, I always learn something new or different,” says Greg McCann. “When Bill was explaining how you renovate the bogs, and the order the plants are in, I found that quite interesting, as you now have more tech in the cranberry harvesting process! I also never realized that you had your own sand pit, for lack of a better term, and how you mine the sand and moved it around the property.”

“The annual fall pilgrimage to visit the Haines Family at Pine Island remains the best part of my work calendar each and every October and this year was no different, ” George Giorno says. “We were fortunate enough this year to have Bill, Stef, and Michael as our farm tour hosts with our guests from Wakefern Food Corporation and our agency partners from Advantage Solutions. For our Wakefern guests, Michael Janeway and Stephen Fox, this was their first time experiencing the beauty of the cranberry harvest and for me, it was yet another day where I get to share the roots to the passion I hold for our cranberry business and pride it poses in our ownership. Our guests loved the farm tour and were so grateful they got to experience a cranberry harvest. As we drove home, they were already creating a list of associates for next season who they believed should attend a harvest. As an added bonus to this trip, we were also able to learn from Bill beyond the active cranberry harvest. Bill educated us about the importance of continuously renovating the older bogs to improve fruit quality and to enable more efficient drainage and harvesting methods. We visited several renovated bogs at different stages of their 3-5 year yield curves to witness the evolution of a new bog. These trips are just fascinating and such a positive learning experience – already, I can’t wait for next year’s visit!”

For our part, it continues to be a pleasure to speak with people who are genuinely enthusiastic about what they do and are so willing to completely immerse themselves in a new experience. It‘s always fun to have George and his team here and show our customers how we really do things. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us. Thanks again, George, for everything you and your team do. We’re looking forward to seeing you again!

Pine Island History: Black Rock

This week, harvest has progressed to the bogs behind our main office: the system called Black Rock.

CEO Bill Haines is a movie buff, and named the system Black Rock back when it was first built in the mid 70s.

Back in 2012, Black Rock suffered some damage after the region caught the edge of Hurricane Isaac.

New Jersey caught the tail end of Hurricane Isaac, who brought us over eighteen inches of rains (along with funnel clouds) and left us with an enormous amount of clean-up. . . we lost twenty dams on seven major reservoirs, irrigation main lines were damaged where dams washed out, and 50% of the farm was underwater at some point. Some bogs were only under for 24 hours, some for 48, and at Sim Place, where damage was heaviest, some of the bogs were under for almost 72 hours.

In 2015, Black Rock became the next set of beds to undergo renovation, where we experimented with some new forms of erosion control and some changes to our sanding process. They were planted with Mullica Queens in the fall of 2015, which means they’re just about up to full production!

It’s been an eventful few years for Black Rock, but things are looking good!

A visit from DC

In October 2014, Pine Island had a visit from Senator Cory Booker; during that same week, our neighbors at Lee Brothers received a visit from Senator Robert Menendez. This week, a group of New Jersey cranberry growers welcomed Senator Menendez’s aide Rob Childers, who had been unable to make it the last time and has been wanting to come see us ever since!

Rob’s afternoon in cranberry country started with a video at the Lees before moving on to Pine Island, where we immediately put him to work! He was able to see both the reel harvesters and the newer Gates Harrow in action, as well as the entire gathering procedure from start to finish.

After that, he stopped by the Marucci Center for a chat with director Nick Vorsa and a tour of the greenhouses.

The final stop was a tour of the Ocean Spray receiving station.

“We would like to thank Rob on behalf of Rutgers, Ocean Spray, and the Cutts, Haines, and Lee families for making the personal effort to visit with us during cranberry harvest,” says grower Steve Lee III. “We hope the visit gave him a new perspective on the cranberry industry in the NJ Pinelands and the nationwide importance of the unique agricultural research that is conducted here.”

*Some photos provided by Steve Lee III.

Processing

The second full week of harvest is going well! Last week, manager Matt Giberson talked about how we’re testing samples before a truck goes to Ocean Spray. “If the numbers aren’t great,” he said, “we’re taking it to our own packing house and clearing it out before we send it up the road.” Here’s how that works.

Each bog is run through separately. First, the forklift crew unloads the full cranberry boxes from the trucks coming out of the field. Once the cranberries are poured into the hoppers, they pass along the belt through the blowers, which are used to partially dry the fruit and remove as many of the leaves as possible. Once the leaves are blown out, the fruit drops onto another belt and from there move up the truck elevator into the waiting trailer.

Things are a little different if our team is going straight from the bog to Chatsworth, though!

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

Once the truck is full (whether it’s cleaned with the bogside cleaner or at our own packing house), it’s time to head down the road!

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

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

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

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

The 2019 harvest begins!

Our busiest season has finally begun! Our harvest crews started picking at the southern end of the home farm and out at Sim Place this week.

“We started out at High Bridge because those are now the oldest beds planted with early-season varieties,” says CEO Bill Haines. “These bogs in particular are planted with Crimson Queen, which are our earliest variety. We like to plant those furthest from the center of the farm. As we finish picking beds we’re working our way closer and closer to home. It means we don’t have to travel as much for frost, among other things.” Conditions have been pretty favorable as well, he says. “The water level is good. And it hasn’t been too hot, either. We even had frost last night, which will help us with color.”

As of right now, we’re only running two crews, but expect that to change shortly. “We’re also picking the young bed at Osborne Spung for first time, which have been planted in Mullica Queen,” Bill says. “This will be our first significant harvest for that particular variety.”

Our team has had to make some adjustments to their approach, as they do every year. “Some of the regulations have changed with Ocean Spray on rot percentage and color,” says manager Matt Giberson. “Which means we need to keep an eye on things. When you’re driving by a bed it looks red enough on top but under the canopy it’s white, so we have to manage that. And rot tends to be high in the young beds before a canopy is fully established, so we’re testing samples before it goes to Ocean Spray. If the numbers aren’t great, we’re taking it to our own packing house and clearing it out before we send it up the road.” Matt also notes the optimal conditions this week. “We have plenty of water, but it has been a little dry. We’re starting wells now in order to be prepared in case it remains dry; we haven’t needed to in a long time so it’s good to have them ready anyhow.”

In general, the color is looking really good this year, he says. “Better than it was at this time last year. The TAcy seems really good for the Crimsons. We’re starting our third crew this weekend. The lake’s done, we’ll have Panama done Tuesday, then we’ll finish getting the early stuff from Sim Place. We’ll get the Ben Lears out, go down through Worth Tract, and pick all the young beds.”

If Matt had just one wish for the upcoming season? “We could use just a half inch of rain. Just a little bit! But I think it’s going to be steady as she goes. We got frost a little early this year, but that should help with the color. When we don’t have to chase the color, it all goes a little bit easier.”

Pine Island History: Bog names

While Ocean Spray knows our bogs by number for record-keeping purposes, our team at Pine Island mostly knows them by their names. We’ve mentioned some of them in passing, particularly with our posts on bog renovation, but with one minor exception, we haven’t gone into much detail about the story behind them.

Some bogs, of course, are named after family. There’s Billy, for CEO Bill Haines, Jr., and Holly, for his sister, who is also our previous CFO.

We also have Nadine, a set of five high-production bogs built in the late 80s in a former blueberry field and named for Bill’s wife. Not too far from our office are Stef, Becky, and Tug (also known as the SBT bogs), named after Bill’s three oldest children. We can’t speak for Bill and Holly and their own namesakes, but this blogger can reliably report that every year at harvest time, Stef, Becca, and Tug have a (mostly) friendly rivalry over whose bog is the highest producer. (Nadine stays out of it entirely, as she always wins!)

We also have bogs named for former team members and residents. The best recognized is probably Fred Brown, a section consisting of four bogs located near Brown’s former home on the property. Fred is, of course, most well-known to readers of The Pine Barrens, by John McPhee, and was a highly colorful character, to put it mildly. From the first chapter:

“I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but there’s got to be something the matter with me, because drink don’t agree with me anymore,” he said. He had a raw onion in one hand, and while he talked heshaved slices from the onion and ate them between bites of the chop. He was a muscular and well-built man, with short, bristly white hair, and he had bright, fast-moving eyes in a wide-open face. His legs were trim and strong, with large muscles in the calves. I guessed that he was about sixty, and for a man of sixty he seemed to be in remarkably good shape. He was actually seventy-nine. “My rule is: Never eat except when you’re hungry,” he said, and he ate another slice of the onion.

It’s not possible to improve on McPhee’s prose; if you haven’t read The Pine Barrens yet, it’s a fantastic book. You’ll come away from it wondering why the only thing we named after Fred is a cranberry bog. But cranberries are a perennial fruit; much like McPhee’s evocative writing, those vines will still be here as a memorial and a testament to our own history as well as that of the pines and its residents.

Harvest equipment prep

Harvest is starting soon, and we are always looking for ways to improve the process!

A few years ago, we began using bogside cleaners during the gathering process to help improve efficiency. Before that, during the harvest, berries were placed on a truck via an elevator. The truck then went to our packing house to unload and prep the berries for the receiving station by removing as much bog debris as possible. The bogside cleaner improved this process by removing the packing house step entirely and removing debris as the berries come out of the bog. This is better on fuel and easier on the team, as it requires fewer people in the water. As with any new equipment, there was a learning curve, but our team made modifications as they became necessary and took notes for subsequent harvests.

The experiment was successful and now we have four! “It was a long process,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “When we first started considering a berry pump, we went out to Wisconsin and looked at three or four makes of cleaners as well as looking at one owned by [our neighboring growers] the Lees. We ended up going with Paul’s Machine & Tool because they’d already done quite a bit to accommodate the user interface to make it more intuitive, and they were also very willing to customize it however we wanted. In practice, this meant changing the 6 inch pump to an 8 inch one, as well as asking them to build it a little higher to make it easier for our trailers; a few small changes, and some significant ones. But they provided us with great service, and came out themselves to help set everything up.”

The real test was during harvest itself, of course, and as expected, the team found that the machine would need some modifications based on practical use. (As Bryan says: “When we placed the order, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.”) One of the issues the team discovered was finding a lot of bog debris in the final product, as well as a diminished ability to remove the wastewater fast enough. “We wanted it to be as efficient as possible,” Bryan says, “so we made some minor changes during the season to remove vines and trash. But it became more labor intensive than it was worth.” So for subsequent orders, we asked Paul’s to make some design changes. The new berry pump added extra row of cleaning grates to the cleaning box and changed spacing on the box. At the same time, we sent the old cleaning box back and they sent us the new 5 grate design in return. The combo of the new spray boom and an additional cleaning grate provides better quality fruit for the trailer to take directly to the Chatsworth receiving station.

Testing the new machine on a young bog was useful for a couple of reasons. Young beds have yet to develop a dense canopy, and while they often yield fruit, a high percentage of that fruit contains rot. This makes them a good place to test run new equipment immediately pre-harvest. “We may well need to use the packing house platform for beds with high amounts of rot,” says Matt Giberson, “but we’re obviously hoping those will be few and far between!”

Harvest prep – 2019

Harvest is only about a month away, and our team is making sure we’re more than ready!

We’re getting everything sharpened up on the farm right now; the team is working on both the chores that we need to get done and those that we like to get done. It’s always nice to have the farm tidy and ready beforehand.

The ditches surrounding every bog must be kept free of debris in order to ensure adequate water flow for both flooding and drainage. Cleaning the ditches is important for two reasons. First, it helps maintain the proper moisture level in the soil. Second, and most importantly, removing water from the bogs quickly is urgent in case of a big rain event.

It is important to make sure all of the equipment has been properly maintained well in advance of the harvest: the boom, boom reels, harvesters, et cetera. The boom is taken out and checked for any repairs that need to be made, and so is the reel. The harvesters are brought in and serviced at our shop. We also look over and repair as needed the blowers, trucks, and tractors for each harvesting crew and ensure we have all the tools and safety supplies necessary to get us through harvest.

“We’ve done everything we can at this point and hoping for the best,” says CEO Bill Haines. “Talk to me again in November and I’ll let you know how we made out!”