ACGA Summer Field Day 2020

This week the American Cranberry Growers Association (ACGA) held its annual summer meeting to hear updates from the Rutgers P.E. Marucci Center on current projects. Normally field day is a chance to go out and explore the researchers’ valuable work first hand, but this year, things were a little different.

“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this year we could not have our regular in-person meeting,” says Dr. Cesar Rodriguez-Saona. “Instead, the meeting was held virtually, and the agenda had a ‘hybrid’ format with scientists from the Marucci Center and USDA-ARS presenting updates on their work during the first hour and a Q&A session during the second hour.”

As a result, it was a much briefer program, but the presenters were able to convey a lot of information in that short amount of time. First the growers heard from Dr. Peter Oudemans about his ongoing research on methods for managing fruit quality and disease control, as well as the potential of using honeybees to protect cranberries against diseases. Dr. James Polashock provided an update on his research to develop resistance against fruit rot, while director Dr. Nicholi Vorsa discussed a condition of cranberries he calls “crunchy vines” and its potential causes and remedies. Cesar, of course, discussed insect pest priorities as well as future Entomology research projects. Finally, Baylee Carr (representing Dr. Thierry Besançon’s program) provided an update on current strategies for Carolina redroot and moss control.

One of the biggest draws of the ACGA meetings, besides research updates, is the opportunity to catch up with fellow growers. This made the Q&A section of the meeting especially lively. “Despite having to move online, it was still a worthwhile and educational meeting for the growers,” says ACGA president Shawn Cutts. “Hearing updates on the latest research as well as having the opportunity to discuss late season issues during the Q&A was valuable.”

“Although we missed not having the regular in-person interactions and field tours typical of our summer meetings, the virtual meeting was well attended and highlighted the importance of continued communication and exchange of information between researchers and growers,” Cesar says.

“I missed visiting the Rutgers bogs but I thought it was a really good meeting,” says Pine Island CEO Bill Haines. “The presentations were clear and concise and the discussion and questions after were excellent.”

The ACGA board also thanks Lindsay Wells-Hansen for her help setting up the virtual meeting, and is, as always, hugely grateful to Cesar for organizing yet another successful gathering!

Summer tasks 2020

August is a relatively quiet month for our team, with applications finishing up and harvest is still a few weeks away. Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to do!

The bog renovation at Red Road is just about finished, and our new production team will begin planting next week!

We’re also 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 before harvest begins. It’s also 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.

Most importantly, our team needs to make sure the fruit stays cool! When humidity is low, applied water will readily evaporate and cool the fruit. During the day, if temperatures get up to around 95 degrees, we will turn on the irrigation in order to cool the bog down to the 80s. We’ll run the pumps for about an hour or two, depending on variables such as wind, temperature, and humidity. There is also a distinct difference between sending water through the root system and keeping the bog cool. The trick is avoiding complications from too much moisture, which can cause conditions that are welcoming to fungi such as phytophthora, which causes root rot.

Tropical Storm Isaias

If there is one consistent thing about farming, it’s the inconsistency of any kind of weather event!

In 2011, a storm with straight line winds blew through and took the roof off our shop. In 2012, we caught the edge of Isaac, got 20 inches of rain and had vast amounts of acreage underwater. Later that same year, we hardly took any damage from Sandy, with the exception of some downed trees in the middle of a swamp. Last month saw some heavy rain with the arrival of Tropical Storm Fay. But when Isaias arrived this week, we got less than an inch of rain, though we lost several trees and, of course, lost power, along with the rest of the region.

The good news is that our team can handle a lot without electricity; our pumps and irrigation run on fuel, for example. And, of course, they always make sure to prepare as much as they can ahead of time, making sure the reservoirs and canals are at a good level, looking over the lift pumps, making sure the generators are ready to go if necessary, and keeping as many people working indoors as they can.

We got incredibly lucky this time. Our power back back up within 24 hours, we had no building damage, and the small amount of rain meant we didn’t see much dam erosion, if any. But recent history shows that we can’t always count on that. What we do know is that we can always count on our team to be ready for whatever happens in the future.

Equipment upgrades

This month the Pine Island team has been doing some experimenting with a new GPS system for use with our existing equipment, and it looks like it’s going to be very useful for a variety of tasks.

“We researched the auto steer five years ago in Wisconsin and everything we found was good,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “It’s going to let us flood to a higher level for knocking fruit – water needed to be lower so operator could see the fruit – so this means less time to add water to gather. It also reduces overlap, which means less damage to the vines. We’ve been making many changes to our harvest procedures over the last five years; it was a matter of prioritization. I believe next year we will equip our other two harvest tractors with them so all will operate that way.”

“The harvest part of it is going to be great; we can take the info that it generates and use it to pick over the same spot every year. It uses the real time corrections so it’s pretty accurate,” says Jeremy Fenstermaker. With harvest still a couple of months away, however, the team has been testing the auto steer on other tasks.

“I used it to make straight lines out there while installing irrigation,” Jeremy says. “Normally we put out stakes and try to drive a straight line but with this, if you mark the beginning and end of the line the system will mark it straight so things will be more evenly spaced. Just set it up with auto steer, tell it where you want to go, and it’ll drive you there. The potential here is just tremendous: drainage, irrigation pipe, harvest time . . . anywhere you have to drive the same line year after year.”

“We talked about it for a long time before taking the plunge,” Jeremy says, “and now the more we use it, the more potential we’re realizing.”

Ocean Spray: Tom Hayes

Some good news from Massachusetts: Ocean Spray announced this week that its Board of Directors has unanimously elected Tom Hayes as the cooperative’s next president and chief executive officer.

photo courtesy of Ocean Spray Cranberries.

From the press release:

Hayes is the former president and CEO of Tyson Foods, the largest food company in the U.S. with $40 billion in sales and 122,000 employees…

“Ocean Spray is a unique company – one that asks its leaders to speak the language of consumers, farmers, grocers, bankers, manufacturers and employees all at once. In Tom Hayes, we believe we have found a leader who can speak to all of these audiences and continue the transformation of this cooperative,” said Peter Dhillon, chairman of the Ocean Spray Board of Directors. “Tom’s expertise in supply chain management, his understanding of agriculture and the challenges faced by growers, and his decades of experience in the consumer packaged goods industry make him ideally suited to lead Ocean Spray into its second century. We are thrilled to welcome Tom on board.”

“For everyone who grew up in New England, the Ocean Spray name is not just a global brand – it’s part of our culture. The heritage of the company and its 700 farmer owners is one to be celebrated and shared across the world, and I want to ensure it is protected and positioned to grow for a long time to come,” said Hayes. “Joining Ocean Spray at such a pivotal moment, as it approaches its centennial, presents an extraordinary opportunity to look toward the future, tackle new challenges, and ensure that this cooperative will succeed for another hundred years.”

A native of southern New Hampshire, Hayes earned a BA from the University of New Hampshire and an MBA from Northwestern University. Prior to leading Tyson, Hayes was the Chief Supply Chain Officer at Hillshire Brands and Sara Lee. He has also held significant leadership roles at US Foods, ConAgra, and Kraft. Most recently, Hayes served as a partner at Entrepreneurial Equity Partners (e2p), a private equity firm that invests in middle market companies in the food industry.

Pine Island CEO Bill Haines was a member of the Board’s search committee and is very happy with the decision: “As a farmer-owner, I’m really excited to have Tom Hayes come on board to lead Ocean Spray,” he says. “The team has done a great job through the crisis of the last four months, and we’re looking forward to even bigger and better things now that Tom is on board. I think that he’s exactly the kind of leader that our farmer cooperative needs.”

Welcome to the co-op, Tom!

*Photo courtesy of Ocean Spray.

Vendors: Sweeney Construction

Originally posted on July 15, 2016.

This week at Pine Island, it’s all business as usual: bloom is just about over and the bee boxes are being removed, we continue work on renovation, and of course, being July, it’s hot out there! So instead of an update on our sprinklers, we decided to bring you the first in an occasional series on some of our favorite vendors. And who better to kick this feature off than Sweeney Construction?

Sweeney Construction, started by Tom Sweeney in 1976, has been working with Pine Island for several years now. After forty years in the business, Tom has retired, and his son Mike is now in charge. “Our first project for Pine Island was the big camp, back when you guys were still in the blueberry business,” Mike says. “It worked out that it was completed right before it was time to use it! We’ve since done probably 12 to 15 different projects over here.” Among those projects: rebuilt three employee homes, renovations on the two camps on the main road, apartment renovations, built three garages, and of course, renovated our main office from a private home to to a building suitable for running a large cranberry operation. Most recently, Sweeney finished the roof on the office with an amazing turnaround time. “Not a lot of companies who can supply that manpower,” Mike says. “It’s been a good relationship for us over the years.” He has high praise for the team members he’s worked with, as well. “It’s been nothing but good interactions with Bill [Haines] and Bryan [vonHahmann],” he says. “And a lot of the jobs here are a little easier because Pine Island has so much of their own equipment. Excavation, septic systems…it helps a lot.” He especially singled out our facilities team (particularly Mike Guest and Louis Cantafio) as well as the precision work of Junior Colon on the excavator.

And Sweeney is also looking ahead! In addition to doing repair to work to a historic farmhouse in Eastampton, they’re working on energy-efficient housing. “Our latest project is with Unity Homes in New Hampshire,” Mike says. “It’s a net zero energy usage house: solar panels, post and beam constructions, exposed materials. It’s being built in-factory in New Hampshire and we’re assembling it down here after we finish the foundation work; we’re planning to set the panels in early August.”

As far as Pine Island is concerned, we will of course let CEO Bill Haines have the last word: “Sweeney Construction is one of our favorite vendors. It’s been a pleasure to work with Tom and Mike. They’re always professional, they always do exactly what they say they’re going to do, they always get it right, and they stand behind their work. I can’t say enough good things about them, and I would recommend them to anyone for any project.”

Tropical storms

Just a couple of weeks ago our team was running sprinklers to make sure the beds were getting water, but this week changed all of that with the arrival of Tropical Storm Fay.

While our team works rain or shine, wet weather can make some tasks more difficult, especially bog renovation, and team members will sometimes move on to something else until things dry out. In the past, we’ve had to switch things around a little because we don’t want to wreck the dams or the bogs we’re renovating. For example, the Hydremas will keep running but but haul less per load, and if needed, the bog renovation team will take the opportunity to move equipment to get ready for the next stage.

“We’re getting it pretty good right now from this storm,” says manager Matt Giberson. “We saw it coming a few days ago, so Louis and his team had all the Crisafullis looked over and the lift pumps checked. We started lowering canals and reservoirs Wednesday to make room for all the rain. So far everything looks good! The great thing about this is it’s raining during the day, not at two in the morning, so we get a better visual of what we are looking at and what we need to make it easier.”

Too much rain can have a negative effect on pollination as well as fertilizer application, so we have to be ready. Farming is all about doing what you have to do when you when it’s time to do it, and our team makes sure to plan for every possible outcome.

July heat

As we have mentioned so many times before, the key to growing cranberries is water.

Cranberries need about an inch of water each week during the growing season (either via rain or irrigation), preferably early in the morning or at night, in order to avoid losing it to evaporation. We irrigate for two reasons: first, to keep the vines healthy and productive, and second, to protect them from the heat. Keeping them cool helps protect the bloom, the fruit, and the vines themselves. And while it’s crucial in the hot summer days, cooling may also be necessary in May, before the uprights (short vertical branches) acquire their protective waxy coating.

Once the fruit is formed, it’s important to keep them from what we term “scalding”. Scald occurs when the temperature is high but the dew point (humidity) is low; as Dr. Peter Oudemans likes to say, “When people are comfortable, the cranberries are in trouble.”

When humidity is low, the applied water will readily evaporate and cool the fruit. During the day, if temperatures get up to around 95 degrees, we will turn on the irrigation in order to cool the bog down to the 80s. We’ll run the pumps for about an hour or two, depending on variables such as wind, temperature, and humidity.

How we measure soil moisture

There is also a distinct difference between sending water through the root system and keeping the bog cool. The trick is avoiding complications from too much moisture, which can cause conditions that are welcoming to fungi such as phytophthora, which causes root rot. Vines shouldn’t be damp all the time; it’s a balancing act to keep the fruit at optimum growth conditions while avoiding oversaturation. The key to walking the tightrope is constant evaluation and always being aware of bog conditions.

Bees – June 2020

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

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

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

“All of the hives have been set up and they’ve been working like crazy,” says CEO Bill Haines. “The weather’s been good, too. It’s been warm with low humidity and we haven’t gotten any really big rain. That means we’re out there watering every day, but so far things are looking good.”

Planting – spring 2020

A couple of weeks ago our team was replanting some bare patches. This week, they’re hard at work on our renovated acreage!

There are two methods of planting: conventional propagation, which means pressing mowed vines or prunings directly into the bogs to be established; and rooted cuttings, which means planting plants with roots already established. Pine Island has used both methods in the past, but we’ve moved on to using rooted cuttings entirely. Another concern with planting is implementing an irrigation program, both with ground water and sprinklers, that provides moisture for vine growth without causing excessive soil saturation, which can lead to favorable conditions for phytopthora, which in turn can lead to fruit or root rot. Pine Island uses both ditches and sprinklers for irrigation. During the early spring, after the winter flood is removed, irrigation is usually covered by our frost protection program. However, concerns for adequate soil moisture should not be forgotten during frost season. Several warm, sunny days without rain or frost irrigation can result in the need for irrigation. Checking the soil yourself is extremely important; tensiometers are good, but it’s important to learn the hands-on method, as well.

The process remains the same: rooted cuttings are taken from the cart and loaded onto the planter. Team members seated on the planter drop the vines into the carousel and then the vines are distributed into the pre-dug furrow. The planter is followed by other crew members, who make sure that the vines have been placed correctly. Running the planting operation is a true challenge: coordinating everything, getting the right plants at the right time with the right people, constantly adjusting the planters, and identifying problems and how to fix them.

We target our planting for spring to provide more time in the growing season. With the acreage we need to cover (about 50 acres this year) and how the timing coincides with very busy times on the farm we work hard to balance all resources.

This year we planted our renovated acreage at Sim Place with Demoranville and the new bogs at the home farm with Haines, both of which have been yielding good results for us.