Staying warm

While it’s not been as consistently cold as it’s been in past years, our team still needs to make a plan for January weather in order to work safely! The cold can made our winter tasks more challenging, and in some past instances, we’ve had to alter plans temporarily. The following lists some things we’ve done in the past to keep our team out of the elements as much as possible.

“Our guys dress for the weather, but we really can’t keep our team exposed to the elements when the temperature gets too low,” explains COO Bryan vonHahmann. “And when it’s cold, it’s hard to dig, so we have to slow down on that.” A lot of the outdoor bog reno work gets postponed for the duration, as well as the sanding operation. (While we have tried ice sanding in the past, the weather can actually get too cold to even attempt it; low temperatures not only affect the team, but the equipment as well.)

To that end, our team has kept busy by working indoors as much as possible. Some build signs for our property borders, some work on box repairs, and still others assemble sprinklers for the current acreage under renovation as well as repairing old sprinklers: replacing worn out nozzles, springs, and sprinkler heads.

Depending on the day to day forecast, though, some outdoor work is usually possible. “When the wind’s not blowing and the sun is out, we’ve been able to send a team out to work on things like survey lines,” says Bryan. “They’re protected a bit by the trees, so they’re able to go out and post the signs that have been built already.” And when it’s warm enough to run equipment, the team will keep busy disassembling the old wooden gates we’ve recently replaced.

Our team will still do whatever it takes…but they make sure to keep safe and keep warm at the same time!

Sanding 2021

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“We got a later start than we wanted, because we had so much fall work to do,” says manager Matt Giberson. “Since we had some things to finish up first, like installing new irrigation in the Nadine system, we’re only running two sanding crews right now.” He plans on starting a third crew on Monday in an effort to get ahead of an upcoming cold snap: “Looking at the forecast they’re saying that it’s supposed to get really cold in the middle of the month. So we’re going to get as much done as we can then for now, just in case that does happen and the sand freezes up.”

Our team is also working on a new solution to the annual challenge of sanding the perimeter of each bed. Because the sanding barge 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 have tried a number of different things the past few years to hit these spots, and this year our equipment team is putting the finishing touches on the latest: “We have a new tractor that does the edge and will pull a sander around with it,” Matt says. “Louis is working on it now with Larry, and it should be ready pretty soon.”

And with only 300 acres to do this year, (100 acres less than the usual number), our team will have things a bit easier, weather permitting!

Winter weather preparations

When a big winter storm is in the forecast, the news pays a lot of attention to bread, milk, eggs, rock salt, and closures. On a farm, the work must be done whatever the weather, and our team needs to prep accordingly! Our first storm of the season found our team ready, though fortunately there was no accumulation this time!

The number one priority, as always, is checking the water: checking for washouts, making sure nothing’s too high or too low, making sure there’s no water on the dam itself. Team members year-round rotate the responsibility of doing a complete check of entire farm, including weekends. “In order to make sure that gets done during bad weather as well, we need to make sure the main pathways are cleared,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “If a lot of snow is expected, we send the front loaders home with the guys so if we get a lot of accumulation, they’re able to plow themselves out and start clearing the main dams. Then the other guys are able to go check the water, reservoirs, bogs, all that.”

The Equipment/Facilities team also takes some precautionary measures, making sure generators are ready to go in case we lose power for an extended amount of time. They also make sure the heat is turned up in any vacant properties onsite, just in case. “We also pack the shop with equipment to work on,” says manager Louis Cantafio. “That way, we don’t have to dig it out, or start it in the cold, or fill the shop with melting snow. We’ll also look over all the loaders, make sure they’re greased and fueled and ready to go in case the operators need to bring them home.”

The next storm, when and if it comes, will find our team ready once again!

Meet Our Neighbors: The Gerber 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 fourth generation grower Tom Gerber of Quoexin Cranberry Company.

1. How long has your family been in the business?

I am a fourth-generation grower. My great-grandfather was Andrew Etheridge, who was the caretaker for Joseph Wharton at his Atsion farm from 1885 until his death in 1925. As the Farm Manager, he oversaw the cranberry operations at Sandy Ridge, Deep Run, Atsion Meadows, Goshen, Iron Mill, and Ancora bogs. My grandfather Julius Gerber worked for the Evans and Wills Company managing their Friendship Bog and later in 1912 switched jobs with Garfield Alloway here at the Quoexin 1 bog in Medford. My father Paul, his brother – my uncle Ross, and myself all worked for Francis Sharpless, who was an owner partner in the former Evans and Wills company. Christine Gerber and I purchased the 1000-acre property containing 60 acres of bogs in 1997, and I am still farming here today.

2. What’s your favorite aspect of cranberry farming?

I very much enjoy meeting, socializing, and gathering with the many growers from all over North America! I am a big history buff and am especially interested in of all of the pioneer growers from the industry’s beginning. I pride myself most with my family’s drive and endurance to keep going every new year.

3. What has been your biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge continues to be the cost of surviving these times, as well as our location in the New Jersey growing region. It’s the area where the industry began, 150 years ago. With the eastward movement of the growing area, we are the westernmost bog in the state. Being close to the Pineland towns of Medford and Marlton, we see suburban movement getting closer and closer every year. We are constantly pushing back a maturing Pinelands forest as it would love to invade the bogs. Weather is always a challenge, and have I mentioned: maple and sweet gum seedlings galore!

4. What makes your operation unique?

We are arguably one of the oldest bogs in the state, having some bogs and buildings still in use that were built about 1850 by William Braddock, who was a pioneer Medford grower. Quoexin is also a bog that Bill Haines Sr and John Lee gathered floaters from with the aid of an airboat in the early 1950s, this being a nod towards future water harvesting.

5. What’s a legendary story in your family?

My mother, Ruth Etheridge Gerber, was born and raised in Atsion Village Farm, living in the caretaker’s house of Joseph Wharton. My mom had many stories of growing up there and would tell this pinelands history to her children. One such story was about the Ryder Robbery Murder near Hampton Furnace in October of 1916. A large payroll for the Andrew Rider Hampton Bogs was the target. My mother’s Aunt Sallie and Mamie Etheridge had given the Burlington County Chief of Detectives Ellis Parker a description of suspects they saw near the Atsion store and train station hours prior to robbery murder, thus aiding in their conviction.

*Photos courtesy of Tom Gerber.

Previously: The Moore Family

Winter flood – 2020

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.”

Pest control: swan string

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.

Last 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. “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.”

Dormancy

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:

Per the UMass Cranberry Station:

The signal to enter dormancy is most likely a combination of low temperatures and short days.

The dormant state lasts until the plant has been exposed to sufficient ‘chilling hours’ — hours of temperatures between 32ºF and 45ºF to complete the dormant cycle. In common with other perennial fruit crops, the cranberry plants must accumulate a critical number of chilling units in order to break dormancy in the spring and initiate flowering for the new season.

While we are waiting for the plants to complete this process so that we can begin the annual winter flood, our team is continuing to work on cleaning out interior ditches (better for drainage) and pest management (putting up swan string).

And, of course, we continue to work with our most important resource: our water supply.

Farm to table!

Every year, toward the end of the season, CEO Bill Haines goes into one of the final beds and harvests some fruit the old fashioned way for family and friends. This year, he even got a little surprise help from our friend and next door neighbor Steven Sooy.

One of the best things about the New Jersey cranberry industry is how it truly is a cooperative effort. Once Steven showed up, it took no time at all for the two of them to pick 150 pounds of cranberries for personal use!

The next step was getting the berries dried off and sorted. This was a bit of a challenge, as cold overnight temperatures meant our team had to run the sprinklers to guard against frost earlier in the week, so there was quite a lot of water on the fruit for a bog that hadn’t been flooded yet.

It took the afternoon and most of the next day, but we managed to get them dried, sorted, and put into boxes to distribute for everyone to make their holiday favorites!

And with the final load of berries for the 2020 harvest making its way to the Ocean Spray receiving station this afternoon, that’s a wrap on the prettiest season in the Pines! We are as ever, grateful to have such good friends and neighbors in the Sooy family, as well as all of the other growers who make New Jersey a true cranberry community.

Cranberry News: Vasanna variety

Cranberries have very specific needs regarding soil, water, and nutrition, among other things, and the research team at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry & Cranberry Research are always hard at work helping cranberry growers address those needs. In recent years, they have developed several new varieties to increase yield per acre, combat disease, and improve color.

Pine Island is starting to see some nice results from one new variety we planted back in 2015, and there’s exciting news on the horizon for growers in other regions: the Vasanna variety!

According to Rutgers, qualities for Vasanna include yields to over 500 barrels/acre in British Columbia and Wisconsin, low fruit rot, higher berry weight, and mid-season TAcy (color measurement). It should do well in most areas, and particularly well in the typical soil conditions in moderate oceanic climates, such as Oregon, Wisconsin, & British Columbia.

There’s a wonderful story to the Vasanna name, as well, and it means a lot to one particular Rutgers scientist. From Fruit Growers News:

Rutgers University cranberry breeder Nicholi Vorsa named his latest release, Vasanna, in memory of his parents, Vas and Anna. Immigrants from Belarus, they had few resources but encouraged him and his brother to finish their doctorate degrees.

“They saw it as a road to success in this country,” said Vorsa. “I was featured in the New York Times once – it was my early years at Rutgers. My father was very proud of that.”

That the Vorsa family was even able to immigrate was extremely fortunate. Vorsa said his grandfather, Damian, was once a cooper with as many as 20 apprentices who helped him build barrels, casks and even water towers for small villages – but the family members were historically were “White Russians” or anti-communists, he said, and grandfather Damian spent time in the Soviet Union’s gulag. The family was blocked from immigrating for years during the USSR’s Josef Stalin regime, arriving in the United States in 1952, Vorsa said.

In an interview with News 12, Nick says, “They were fortunate to get out after the war and come to the U.S. My grandmother was an avid gardener. I was amazed at the variety of tomatoes she had. And that spawned my interest in this area.”

The NJ cranberry industry, and indeed, the industry as a whole, are grateful to be the beneficiaries of that early interest. . .and fortunate to have such strength and resiliency in our community.

Harvest Improvements

In the time since we started this blog, 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.

As more and more of our older bogs get marked for renovation, we expect at some point to be full time with just the harrows. But until then, there will still be days like today where we’ll be kicking it old school!