Common cranberry challenges

This article was originally posted on June 10, 2016.

This week, our team finished our yearly treatment for fairy ring. Fairy ring is a persistent issue for growers, and we work very closely with researchers to find solutions.

“We start treatment at the roughneck stage,” says Matt Giberson, “and stop once we start seeing a lot of flower out there. It can be a little tricky; we don’t put on an application after a long frost night, or heavy rain, because too much water can stress the soil.” Treatments are planned very carefully. “Mike [Haines] and I go over the top producing bogs that aren’t marked for renovation, and set priorities. We start with Ben Lears first, because they bloom the fastest, and then go into the Stevens bogs. Once we’ve made the plan, we give Blondie, Alejandro, Tito, and Albert the maps and send them out. It takes two crews to get everything done, but they’re really hustling.”

A great deal of our knowledge comes from research being conducted by the Rutgers Marucci Center. Dr. Peter Oudemans has ongoing fairy ring experiments on some of Pine Island’s established beds. “What we’re doing with the experiment is looking at different treatments, especially different rates, to see which ones will control the disease best,” Peter says. “So on the one bog, we’re looking at one specific treatment, and we’re looking at different rates for the treatment and different rates of water. Because the fungus is in the organic layers beneath the sand, we need to figure out how much it takes to move the applications to the right position. We did some studies to look at how much water will it take to get to the correct depth, and what we found out is that .2 gallons per square foot is probably the minimum that we can use. Which is kind of what we found from our soil moisture probes as well. We’re starting to see some control at those levels.” The other bog, he says, is being used to test other treatments. However, he says, “we’re looking at two problems. First: how do you measure success? Because those plots are big and hard to evaluate. So we’re using drones to evaluate the progress. We measure once a month, to see if there’s any change in amount. It’s been pretty useful to measure it that way; we can capture data in fifteen minutes, evaluate progress over time, and capture it through the summer.”

“The other problem is, what can we expect from fairy ring control?” he says. “Fairy ring already messes up the canopy. It kills the edge, but then it leaves the center as a scar on the bed and also reduces yield. But talking with Dan [Schiffhauer] and Joan [Davenport], we came up with some possible treatments for the centers of those rings to help them recover and help with the scarring, such as slow release fertilizers.”

Fairy ring has been a persistent problem in the local cranberry industry for a long time, and it’s been tricky to address, even with all the hard work from researchers. Manager Mike Haines remembers tracking in in 2008 during his summers home from college. “The best thing is not having to deal with it in the first place,” he says. “That’s a huge focus when we assign a bog for renovation. A lot of the time, the beds you’re renovating are the old ones being torn up by fairy ring, so you don’t want that problem to recur. You want to do it all right from the beginning. Attention to detail in renovation and thinking about it thoroughly and critically are important so you can avoid having to do all this stuff later.”

Joan Davenport – May 2019

It’s once again time for Pine Island’s annual visit with Dr. Joan Davenport! A former researcher for Ocean Spray, Joan works with Pine Island to provide guidance on fertilizer, water, and nutrients, as well as general integrated crop management. “At this point in the growing season, we are evaluating the plants for fruit potential and trying to develop recommendations for applications between bloom and fruit set. To do this, I look at hook, the length and color of the new upright growth, and the amount and color of old leaves, including looking for leaves from two growing seasons ago,” Joan says.

“The general philosophy for management is to focus on root development in the first year, then shoots the following year, and then beginning fruit production in year three,” Joan says. “If the beds are not well established by year three, it is best to maintain practices to minimize fruit set. The reason for this is that fruit production requires many of the plant’s resources (nutrients, water, carbohydrates) and setting a significant crop prior to plant establishment will delay the ability to get to the desired situation where the roots/shoots/fruit are in equilibrium and can sustain long term production.”

“We didn’t have too much this year that’s been different from any other year,” says manager Mike Haines. “We toured a typical representation of the different varieties and different stages of growth in both young and established bogs and made a couple of changes from the usual applications based on what we saw out there. Traditionally, we start with 10 pounds of nitrogen in early bloom, but some of our stuff was really lush and growthy, especially the Stevens we sanded this winter. So Joan recommended lowering that initial application to 5 pounds so it doesn’t grow like crazy. And at Sim Place we have some of those old bogs on that mucky ground that makes growth really lush too, so we might skip the first fertilizer application entirely on some bogs there. Everything else was pretty typical.”

“We’re just starting to see bloom in the Ben Lears,” Mike says. “Everything else is a little behind but should be catching up soon. The Crimson Queen variety usually blooms early but we took the water off late this year. There are a lot of flowers on the young beds, but we typically don’t pick those for harvest. We’ll see how things go as the season progresses!”

Meet Our Neighbors: The Sooy Family

The New Jersey cranberry industry is small, but it is mighty. Welcome to the next installment of our occasional series about some of our fellow New Jersey cranberry growers! This week, we spoke with our immediate neighbors to the south: Peggy Sooy and her sons Steven and Johnny.

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

Stevie: Grandpop used to live at Stormy Hill behind where the Pine Island office is now. Otis gave him the lower track here and they moved over in ’45 or ’46. We’ve been working here ever since.

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

Stevie: I just love the whole growing season. Taking the water off, putting the risers in, bringing in the bees…

Peggy: You’re a farmer and you enjoy what you’re doing!

Stevie: Exactly. Because at the end you’re looking out there at a sea of red, then that last truck heads for the receiving station and blows the horn. I just enjoy the whole thing from beginning to end.

Peggy: You dedicate so much of your life to this and you know, it’s part of you. It’s part of your thinking process. The paperwork will kill you, though.

3. What has been your biggest challenge?

Stevie: Getting the bugs under control!

Johnny: Weather.

Stevie: Yeah, that too. Cranberry growers are always calling each other: “What temperature are you getting? This guy’s at 32 already, that guy got hail, what are you looking at?” Everything else we can control, but you can’t control the weather or the insects!

Peggy: There are a lot of ifs. Weather. Surviving the season and meeting expenses. When we had blueberries the issue was getting the help but we have great neighbors!

4. What makes your operation unique?

Peggy: It’s not only a farm, it’s a friendship, it’s family, all of us. Anything we need. What’s so unique with us, unlike a lot of growers, we’re really small. So it’s great to take care of.

Stevie: It’s a big garden in a way. We can look out the window and say “no geese, no swans, we’re okay today!”

Peggy: We have the same strength as so many other growers: we’re family owned and you can depend on your family…which is the three of us at this point!

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

Peggy: I think just how we started out and have managed to keep going, really. Art’s mother and father worked hard and managed to keep the place going. It’s a reward, being able to keep the farm up all these years. That’s our reward.

*Photos courtesy of Peggy, Steven, and Johnny Sooy.

Previously: The Lee Family

Community service: Holly Haines

In 2012, Holly Haines stgepped down from her position as Pine Island CFO to run the Haines Family Foundation full-time. The Foundation, created by Holly and Bill Jr. (under the auspice of Bill Sr.) as a tribute to their mother and her championship of schooling for Burlington County residents, also supports open space and farmland preservation efforts and works closely with Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia.

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

From their website:

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

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

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

Fertilizer – young beds

Fertilizer applications have begun; it really must be spring!

The amount of fertilizer we apply to each bed is determined by variety, soil conditions, and past practices, requiring constant evaluation of current conditions, history, and trends. Nutritional needs are also different for young vines as opposed to established plantings. Additional nutrition is necessary because while cranberries have adapted (and thrive) in their native sandy soil, nutrients are taken from the bog through the harvest of fruit.

The three main elements usually added for nutrition are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and the team based their decisions on tissue samples, and last year’s yield. According to cranberries.org: “Cranberry plant demand for nitrogen is highest during three stages of the lifecycle critical to cranberry development–early growth, fruit set and bud set. Early growth is when the plant grows vegetatively through vining and root growth and produces a flush of new leaves. Fruit set is when the flower becomes pollinated and fruit begin to form. Soon after fruit set comes bud set when nitrogen is needed for both fruit development and production of the next year’s flower bud.”

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

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

Work anniversary: Emmanuel Colon

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

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

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

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

Frost – 2019

One of the toughest things cranberry growers do is managing springtime frost conditions. In the spring, there is a danger to the crop when the temperature drops. Typically, a cranberry bog is built at a lower level than the land immediately surrounding it and the bog temperature can drop ten to fifteen degrees lower than the uplands. These conditions make monitoring bog temperature a top priority once the winter water comes off. It’s no exaggeration to say there would be no crop if we didn’t watch for frost on the bogs.

The first step is monitoring the temperature. Each bog has a thermometer (usually located in the coldest section) that requires frequent checking throughout the first part of the night. Once the temperature drops to between 33 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the stage of growth), it’s time to turn on the pumps. More than forty years ago we used to flood the bogs to prevent frost damage; we now use sprinklers instead. When the water from the sprinklers freezes on the vines, it controls the temperature well enough to keep them from harm. It’s also necessary to check the surrounding reservoirs and canals to make sure that the water supply is sufficient to supply the pumps. That can take some time, and doesn’t always need to be done all at once. Depending on location and conditions–is the bog surrounded by woods? Where is the wind coming from? Is the sky clear or overcast?–some will be started earlier than others.

In recent years we’ve moved to an automation process to make this easier on our team, with a combination of automated and analog thermometers for optimal monitoring. The automated thermometer gives us the initial indication that the temperature is dropping. When it hits the first threshold, it sends the notification, and that’s when members of the frost team head out to look at the analog thermometers.

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

Water drawdown – 2019

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

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

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

That early draw does present some challenges, especially with repairs, since you can’t repair sprinklers when they’re underwater. After the water comes off, a crew will install sprinklers (if they haven’t been installed already) and makes sure the irrigation systems are 100% by turning on the system and letting it run for a while. Then they’ll clean out the nozzles, see where we need to make repairs, and turn the system back on to make sure the repairs worked. “The team in charge of repairs will need to do a little more now that all the water is coming off after the early draw, but we have plenty of guys available for that; it all works out!” Matt says.

Running the system for a bit also helps the team make sure that any potential engine problems are taken care of by the Facilities/Equipment team. It’s important for this to be done as soon as possible for frost protection. Typically, a cranberry bog is built at a lower level than the land immediately surrounding it and the bog temperature can drop ten to fifteen degrees lower than the uplands. These conditions make monitoring bog temperature a top priority once the winter water comes off, which is why installing sprinklers quickly and efficiently is so important.

Once it’s all done, everything should be on track for the cold nights coming up!

MFS Intensive Learning 2019 – Pine Barrens Experience

Two weeks ago Pine Island was pleased to once again host the Moorestown Friends School Intensive Learning Pine Barrens program. From the MFS website:

For one week each March, regular classes are suspended for “Intensive Learning,” when Middle and Upper School students and teachers engage in an in-depth study of a specific subject, often involving off-campus research. This long-standing MFS tradition – which dates to the mid 1970s – allows teachers and students to break out of the structure of formal class periods and traditional study by subject disciplines (math, English, history) for a time of experiential learning in out-of-classroom settings.

The morning started off with a brief history of the farm and the family before team members Matt Giberson and fifth generation grower Mike Haines gave the group a talk about a year on the farm.

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

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

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

Penn State Forest Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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