Pine Island Team Profile: Joe Colon

This week, we’re profiling our bog renovations manager, Joe Colon, who has been with Pine Island Cranberry for over forty years. Bog renovation is key to our mission: to continue our tradition of excellence by growing more high-quality cranberries at the lowest cost. Joe is in charge of every facet of the program, from planning to moving earth to irrigation installation, right up to the point where the bog ready to plant.

Joe started with us full-time in November of 1971, and has done just about every job we offer (among them ditching, frost management, and even blueberries), with the exception of scouting. Bill Sr took notice of his skills and initiative, particularly with irrigation, and asked him if he wanted to have more of a role with renovations. “I couldn’t say no,” Joe recalls. He ended up working very closely with Bill Sr, and always speaks of him with admiration. “He was patient; a good teacher. Excellent with numbers. . . he could calculate anything.”

Joe believes in having the right tools for the job. One of Pine Island Cranberry’s core values is “continuous improvement” and to that end, Joe says that our constant upgrade of machinery and acceptance and use of new technology makes his job that much easier. “The better technology you have, the more you can get done,” he says.

When asked for his favorite part of the job, he laughs and said, “Everything!” When pressed, he elaborates: “I love it. I love all of it. But especially when we’re waiting for the harvest, when the vines are in and you can see the berries growing. Grading? I’m not satisfied. Planting? Not satisfied. But when that first harvest comes in, that’s when I’m happiest.” He laughs again and says, “That’s when I tell Bill [Jr], ‘these are yours now; I’m turning it over to you’.”

Pine Island Team Profile: Fred Torres

This week at Pine Island, I rode along with general manager Fred Torres as he spent his morning making sure our day-to-day operations were running smoothly. A second-generation employee (his father Ernesto was foreman under Bill Sr.), Fred grew up here and has worked on the farm part-time since he was a boy, moving up to full-time in 1971 after his high school graduation. “I started out making boxes [in the blueberry packing house], then I was the shed boy. . .then I started doing all the different jobs here and there. Ditching, that kind of thing. My dad let me run my first small crew when I was 18.” He’s continued to do this, though his scope has considerably expanded; now he’s responsible for the big picture. He oversees all of Pine Island’s operations: sanding, flooding, frost, irrigation. . .he’s worked on it all and has good instincts for doing what has to be done when it’s time to do it.

Our first stop is out at 33 Acre, where Alberto is running a crew removing swan strings. This is a method we’ll talk about in-depth in a future entry, but essentially it’s how we keep swans from destroying the vines without harming them in the process. Fred does what he does all day: talks with Alberto about his crew and their progress, resolves any issues, makes suggestions, and does whatever it takes in order to take care of business.

On the way to our next stop, he talks about frustrations with the weather – it’s keeping the crews from finishing the planting – but he does like getting all the little jobs completed, both for the satisfaction of accomplishment and for the way the smaller jobs fit into the bigger picture. “One thing about a farm,” he says. “You always have to be a step ahead. Two or three steps ahead. You need to have a plan ready.”

Next we visit Holly bog to check on Rick, working on the ditcher. Cleaning out the ditches is how we prepare for summer and makes water management much easier. Fred likes to have it done in case it’s a rainy season; it helps tremendously with irrigation.

After seeing how Rick is doing, we ride to Sawmill to see how the other member of his team is doing cleaning out the pipes. Alejandro is working steadily and carefully.

Fred had some things to chat about with our equipment supervisor, Carlos Baez, so we drove over to the temporary shop to follow up on some ordered parts and to see about some repairs.

Then it was time to check on another long-term employee working on ditching, this time at Blueberry Hill.

We finished our busy morning by going to see the progress at the new shop, where Fred spoke with facilities supervisor Mike Guest about progress and plans.

On the way back to the office, Fred says, “Managing’s a funny thing; nobody necessarily sees you doing it. It’s not like pulling boards, or running sprinklers, or anything like that. But it needs to be done, and if it doesn’t get done right, you definitely know about it.” He tells a story about a reporter who had spent the day covering the harvest; she’d seen him several times as he was making his rounds, and she stopped him to ask: “What is it, exactly, that you do?” Fred grins as he remembers his response:

“I told her I was the guy who keeps the wheels turning.”

Pine Island Team Profile: Cristina Tassone

Cristina Tassone, a fourth generation grower raised in nearby Indian Mills, started with Pine Island Cranberry in 2006 in order to learn techniques she could bring back to her own family farm. She started out (as so many of us in the NJ Pinelands did) in a blueberry packing house back in high school, but went on to earn her BA in elementary education from the University of Portland in Oregon. Cristina spent seven years teaching elementary schools in both Oregon and New Jersey, then went on to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia to earn her MBA.

Cristina checking vines at Otter

A ride out with Cristina to Sim Place has her musing about how all of this began. Upon her return to New Jersey, she enrolled in Ocean Spray’s “Next Wave” program, set up for the next generation of cranberry growers. It was there she first met members of the Haines family, who thought she might be a good fit and suggested she try Pine Island Cranberry to improve her expertise. She was initially hired as a part-time scout (checking the bogs for pests) for the summer. Upon being hired as full-time, she did many of the smaller jobs wherever she was needed: installing sprinklers, running a forklift, picking up auto parts, and so forth. Bilingual in Spanish, she also used her teaching skills to give other employees language lessons.

Cristina credits her increased responsibilities to a day when she was building cranberry boxes with Mike Guest, our facilities supervisor. He was called to another project…and Cristina was put in charge of her first crew. “I’ve managed to learn something from just about everyone here,” she says. One of the more valuable things she’s learned, she added, is how to assimilate everyone else’s knowledge to inform her own decisions. As she worked with various other supervisors and team members to pick up the smaller tasks that make Pine Island a success, she began to see how it all comes together. “I don’t know everything . . . I don’t pretend to know everything,” she says. “But one of the things I continue to learn every day is how all the little pieces fit together.”

Cristina at Sim Place

Cristina is now Pine Island’s Integrated Crop manager. Pine Island’s ICM program is based on managing the relationships between water, soils, weather, disease, insects, and nutrition, constantly evaluating current conditions as well as history and trends in order to help her make those best decisions. Her willingness to learn from others is one of her biggest strengths, and she also applies that knowledge to her other specialty: Cristina is also in charge of our recruiting, retention, and training. They might seem like disparate roles, but as Cristina says: “ICM won’t work without the whole thing…everything is related, more and more every day.”