Meet Our Researchers: Thierry Besançon

Welcome to the inaugural post of our new occasional feature: Meet Our Researchers! We’ve spent so much time talking about the excellent work being done at the Rutgers Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry & Cranberry Research that we thought it was time to learn a little more about the people behind the projects. This week: Dr. Thierry Besançon. For a close-up look at his work, check out the Weed Science Instagram account!

What drew you to your field/research focus?

I worked for 10 years in France on diseases and pest management research in stone fruit crops (peaches, plums, cherries…). So, I already had some type of connection with specialty crops before moving to the United States in 2010. In North Carolina, I was offered the opportunity to conduct research for getting a PhD, but I wanted to see and do something new… that’s when I decided to specialize in weed science. I thought it would be good to add weed science knowledge to what I already knew in pathology / entomology from my previous professional experience in Europe. When I joined Rutgers in 2016, I was delighted to be able to work again with specialty crops! But the most exciting thing was really working on cranberries… it’s a unique crop with very specific agronomic practices and very specific challenges, especially regarding weed control. Cranberry is a perennial crop, and most of the time, perennial crops have to deal with perennial weeds that are very challenging to control.

What do you consider your best accomplishment?

Over the last few years, I focused a large part of my research program to find solutions for preventing Carolina redroot (a perennial weed!) to outcompete cranberry vines in our New Jersey Cranberry bogs. Carolina redroot is a very troublesome weed… it competes with cranberry for light, nutrient and water and causes drastic yield and berry quality reduction. It is also very attractive as a food source for waterfowl and that is a problem because swans and geese can cause a lot of damage to cranberry vines when feeding on redroot! Yield losses caused by Carolina redroot average $800/acre. And Carolina redroot is only a problem in New Jersey cranberries as this weeds is virtually unknown further north or in Wisconsin!

Our weed science team spent a lot of time evaluating how Carolina redroot is affecting cranberry yield and quality and determining if some of the unique cranberry agronomic practices (flooding, irrigation, sanding…) may help suppressing Carolina redroot. We also evaluated different non-chemical and chemical options that can help controlling this noxious weeds. After 4 years of investigation, we know more about the biology and ecology of Carolina redroot, and we are now able to propose to the New Jersey cranberry growers a strategy to suppress this weed and restore the productivity of infested cranberry bogs. We still have many questions to answer… How does Carolina redroot propagate from bed to bed? Are we helping it to spread into non infested bogs when harvesting cranberries? Can we detect this weed early enough, so we don’t have to rely on using chemicals to control it?

What has been your biggest challenge?

Well, initial research on Carolina redroot was not easy because not many weed scientists have been investigating this species and we really started from scratch. Learning and understanding the cranberry cropping system was not easy because it is a very, very special crop that I could not compare to anything else I was familiar with. But I am lucky to have great people here in New Jersey in our grower community, with Ocean Spray, and Rutgers University who love cranberries and love transmitting their passion for this wonderful crop. I also have a great weed science team with my technician Baylee Carr, my graduate student Maggie Wasacz, and all the people who are working with us during the spring and summer months.

What are your long-term research goals?

With regards to cranberry, one of my long-term research goals is really to keep better understanding the ecology of some of our most troublesome weed species. We really need to know the details of their life and why they like our cranberry beds so much if we want to get a chance to be more efficient at controlling them in the future.

I am also interested at using new imagery and drone technology to improve the early detection of weed infestation in cranberry beds before weeds colonize entire beds after a few years. With early detection, we can focus our weed control strategies where we really need it. For some species, we could potentially avoid the use of herbicides and focus on non-chemical weed management strategies such as tarping, solarization or manual removal if we can detect the weeds early enough before they start getting a large-scale issue. I also think we’ll be looking at new nonchemical tools for controlling weeds… we have ideas regarding the use of electricity for killing the weeds and we may even have a portable prototype for testing this summer.

What do you enjoy most about working with the cranberry community?

All our New Jersey cranberry growers have been very supportive of my research program, and as a junior faculty, this is extremely important to know that my stakeholders are providing this support. I do not have a week without talking to one of our New Jersey growers or our Ocean Spray agronomists. We are doing applied research in my lab, and it is very important to stay connected with the reality and the challenges that growers are facing with weeds in their cranberry beds. That is very important to have this permanent link with our cranberry community because these discussions are feeding ideas for developing new research!

More personally, our New Jersey cranberry community has been very welcoming and kind with me. I remember one day in my 1st year when I forgot to fill up my gas tank and stopped in Chatsworth, knowing that I could not make it up to the research station. And gas pumps are not very common in the Pine Barrens. It happens that one of our grower give me a call when I was in Chatsworth. He immediately proposed to come to help me with a jerrycan! It is a nice feeling to know that you are working with great professionals but also people that will not hesitate to help you when needed.

*Photos courtesy of Thierry Besançon.

In Memoriam: Ray Samulis

The cranberry community lost a staunch advocate and longtime friend this week with the unexpected passing of Ray Samulis.

Ray retired in 2017 after 41 years of service as agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington County and was also an advocate for farm safety for much of his career, leading several seminars on farm safety. He received many awards over the course of career, including a citation for Distinguished Service to Agriculture from the NJ State Board of Agriculture.

But more importantly than that, he was a friend to all of us. “Ray Samulis was a great friend to the cranberry industry collectively and to many of our members personally,” says ACGA President Shawn Cutts. “As our county extension agent, he was always available to help in whatever way needed. Ray was a regular at all of our meetings, usually giving one of his famous safety talks – a subject about which he cared deeply. His support, advice, and friendship have been missed since his recent retirement. The ACGA extends its sympathies to his family and loved ones.”

“I couldn’t believe when I heard,” says Mike Haines. “I am so sad to hear about his passing when he was really just starting his retirement. We missed him already at the ACGA and county board meetings. He was so kind and friendly to all, and always looking out for us farmers.”

“Ray was a good friend to every cranberry farmer in Burlington County as well as every other farmer in Burlington County,” Bill Haines says. “His focus on pesticide coverage as well as ensuring the safety of farmers was his top priority and it was always greatly appreciated. He was always looking to help and I appreciate everything that he did for us.”

Ray’s work to promote farm safety was his proudest accomplishment. In a Burlington County Times article on his retirement, he noted that the industry was listening:

For his work, Samulis said he was honored by cranberry growers with a “watchdog” award.

“Then I realized that they did pay attention,” he said.

We certainly were, Ray. And the promise we made when you retired still holds true: we’ll try to keep our initials off your list!

ACGA Winter Meeting 2021

This week the American Cranberry Growers Association once again held its annual winter meeting. The ACGA winter meeting is always a good opportunity for growers to listen to research findings from experiments during the previous growing season and the researchers’ recommendations for the 2021 growing season.

Usually it’s also a great chance for the local cranberry community to catch up to each other after the busy harvest season, but this week’s meeting, like so many over the past few months, needed to be held virtually. However, this also meant that in addition to our own researchers we were able to chat with Michelle Hogan from the Cranberry Marketing Committee (CMC) and Bill Frantz from the Cranberry Institute (CI) as well as researchers from other growing areas like Shawn Steffan from the University of Wisconsin.

Bill Haines, Bryan vonHahmann, and Mike Haines were the only three team members in attendance from Pine Island this time, as we wanted to keep some of our focus on sanding before we freeze up. “The format was tough, but that couldn’t be helped,” says Bryan. “Watching the presentations from the office was good as opposed to sitting in a meeting room. It was great to get updates on the various projects that are being worked on. And it also gave us a lot to discuss here on how we may experiment with our IPM and nutrition programs.” The main thing he missed, he said, was the lack of opportunity to talk to fellow growers.

“I thought that the presentations were well done and interesting and had a lot of substance,” Bill says. But like Bryan, he can’t wait to get back to in-person meetings. “The conversation between audience and presenter flows better in person, and you can speak with other growers on breaks to get their perspective and ideas.”

Mike Haines had a slightly different take: “I do miss seeing everyone in person; I always enjoy when all the NJ growers get together. But I gotta say I actually do like the Zoom meetings for learning purposes. It’s easier to take notes, and actually I find it easier for Q & A. I might be in the minority on that, I don’t know!” Like Bill and Bryan, he found all the talks very interesting. “Nick’s stuck out to me, because the proper nutrition of the Rutgers hybrids has been something I’ve really been working and focusing on. So that was good; I’ve had a lot of good conversations with Nick on that topic. Shawn Steffan’s presentation was really great too. They’re raising their own nematodes to use as a sort of biological insecticide. So cool! We’ve used some commercial nematodes before, but honestly I have no clue if they even worked or not. In this case, Shawn and his lab crew are raising nematodes native to that environment, so they’ve evolved to thrive there, I guess meaning they’ll be more effective. Even if we don’t end up messing around with anything like that, it was still so interesting to learn about. And that’s actually another benefit of Zoom meetings – a lot of barriers between regions have been knocked down. So we got to hear from Shawn in Wisconsin. And I’ve been able to attend various other Massachusetts and Wisconsin meetings this past year, since they’ve all been online. That’s been a really neat opportunity.”

All in all, it was another productive day for our Pine Island team as well another excellent program put together by Dr. Cesar Rodriguez-Saona. Thank you, Cesar!

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.

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!

Welcome to Lindsay Wells-Hansen!

Ocean Spray scientist Dan Schiffhauer retired at the end of 2019, and the cranberry community is very pleased to welcome his successor, Lindsay Wells-Hansen! Lindsey, a south Jersey native who earned her undergrad degree at Temple University, comes back home to us from the cranberry community in Wisconsin (where she earned her Ph.D at the University of Wisconsin) and we’re very happy to have her. She’s been making the rounds to meet all of the local growers, and this week was able to sit down at Pine Island with Bill Haines, Mike Haines, and Bryan vonHahmann to talk about our needs for the growing season.

“I think what I’m enjoying most so far about being back in New Jersey is being so close to family again,” Lindsay says. “My husband and I certainly miss our friends and family in Wisconsin, but having the opportunity to be near my side of the family while working in a field that I love is really special. I’m also super excited to be back in the Pine Barrens; I’m a true ‘piney’ at heart, and I absolutely love hiking in and exploring the unique landscape that the Pine Barrens have to offer. Oh, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the much milder winter temperatures again!”

There are also some regional differences beyond climate! “Although my position here is similar in many ways to the one I held before, I’m experiencing the ‘usual’ challenges that come along with any career change,” Lindsay says. “Establishing new relationships with growers and other colleagues, determining the trajectory of my extension and research programs here, et cetera. One of the cool things about cranberries is that they’re grown a little bit differently in every growing region. While I’m generally familiar with the growing practices here in New Jersey, I’m more familiar with the practices in Wisconsin, so one challenge is going to be learning all of the ins-and-outs of cranberry growing in NJ. Growers have figured out what works best for them on their farm, and it’s always fun to learn why things are done a certain way on one farm or in one growing region but not another. These are all great challenges to have, and I’m very excited to get to know each of the growers, to learn from them, and to better understand their needs so that I can be as helpful as possible in the coming years.”

Linsday was also able to attend ACGA winter meeting last week, and found it enormously helpful. “Not only is the meeting a great opportunity to hear a summary of results from all of the research that was conducted over the past growing season(s), but it also provides a wonderful venue for getting to know growers better. I was pleasantly surprised at how well-attended the meeting was, and being there gave me the opportunity to meet growers that I hadn’t met before and to talk further with those that I had met. The NJ cranberry growers seem to be a very tight-knit group, and everyone has been extremely welcoming so far, which means so much to me and is certainly making the transition into my new role easier.”

One of her favorite aspects of this job is that she gets to be in the field working with growers on a daily basis in an effort to help them produce the best crop possible. “I’m really looking forward to establishing closer relationships with the growers and to getting out in the field again soon once the water comes off! I’m also very much looking forward to working closely with the researchers at Rutgers on some exciting research projects.”

Harvest time is a popular time of year for visitors, but for people who work in the industry, there’s something of interest all year round. Lindsay’s favorite time of year is during bloom: “There’s just something really serene about kneeling in the middle of a cranberry bed that’s in full bloom listening to the constant buzz of thousands of pollinators while watching them work the flowers (unless, of course, you run into some angry bees… then it’s anything but serene!). It’s an exciting time knowing that berries are soon to follow!”

On our part, Pine Island Cranberry is very happy to have a Jersey girl come back home. “We’re really excited to have Lindsay in New Jersey,” says Bill Haines. “We know that she did a great job in Wisconsin, and we’re looking forward to working with her here.”

ACGA Summer Field Day – 2019

This week several Pine Island Cranberry team members attended the annual American Cranberry Growers Association (ACGA) summer field day at the Rutgers extension center. While several topics are similar to those discussed at the winter meeting, the field day is a chance to go out and explore the researchers’ valuable work first hand!

Jeremy Fenstermaker:

It was nice catching up with everybody, as always! I enjoyed the talk about the winter flooding; that was interesting. The sanding experiment was something I’ve been thinking about for a while, so it was nice seeing the results of that.

Justin Ross:

I think there are some really neat things coming soon with the use of gene sequencing. Hopefully we will see this speed up the development of of new varieties. James and Nick are doing great work.

Altogether, another successful field day! Thank you to the entire staff at the Marucci Center for all of your hard work in putting it together.

Twilight Meeting 2019

This week, Pine Island Cranberry was glad to host the annual Cranberry Growers Twilight Meeting, run by Cesar Rodriguez-Saona of the Rutgers University Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry & Cranberry Research. In contrast to the American Cranberry Grower Association’s annual winter meeting, the focus here is less research-oriented and uses a more hands-on approach to addressing timely topics of importance to cranberry growers. Included on the agenda were such topics as troubleshooting cranberry disease problems and working with new cranberry varieties.

In addition to the importance of new research findings, it’s also a great chance for the cranberry community to get together face-to-face. Our team, and the other growers, work with Rutgers all the time, but it’s good to be able to sit down with other growers and find out if they’re having some of the same problems with pests, or fairy ring, or excessive heat. That additional perspective can help us troubleshoot our own applications.

“I thought the meeting overall went really well,” says Matt Giberson. “It was good seeing other growers; we haven’t really been able to get together since the winter meeting.” He got a lot out of the presentations this year, as well. “Peter’s research on the fairy ring was good; I liked the clarification on which briar causes the issue. Now we can target those and really go after them, both in and outside of the bog.” Even better, a lot of the treatment comes from our sustainability practices: “I think a lot of our prescribed burning here has helped kill the green briar, as well as mowing around the pump house and the gates.”

Matt also thought things looked bright for future research. “I enjoyed Jennifer’s talk as well; her research with the new rot resistance varieties sounded promising. We’re doing a test plot for her here and so are the Darlingtons, which will be useful for the industry as a whole.”

ACGA Winter Meeting 2019

This week the American Cranberry Growers Association once again held its annual winter meeting. The ACGA winter meeting is always a good opportunity for growers to listen to research findings from experiments during the previous growing season and the researchers’ recommendations for the 2019 growing season. In addition, it’s a great chance for the local cranberry community to catch up to each other after the busy harvest season.

Pine Island sent a big crew this year, and they all came away pleased with the experience. CEO Bill Haines thought this year was particularly good, and as always, enjoyed the the chance to sit down and chat with fellow growers at lunch. ““You can get as much from just having a conversation over lunch as you can from the presentation,” he says.

The rest of the team were equally glad they attended. “It was good to know about some regulatory changes that are coming up,” says Justin Ross. “Knowing what will and won’t be available now will help us plan things better for later.”

“I thought Thierry’s research with the effectiveness of of some treatments on red root was interesting,” says Matt Giberson. “I think more testing should be done on the timing of the application that would be most effective, though. Very interested to know more about how we can kill that swan loving devil weed.” One other side note he thought was interesting: how some treatments seem to greatly reduce yield when applied early in berry development. “From talking to Peter, it seems that it causes phytotoxicity to the flower making it less likely to produce fruit, hence the cause of pin fruit development.”

Newer team member Mike Scullion says, “I enjoyed learning about the management of red root in our bogs as that is an ongoing issue we are dealing with on our farm. My favorite part of the meeting, as always, is learning about the new varieties Nick Vorsa is working on. They are getting closer and closer to producing a strain of cranberry that not only has a higher resistance to fruit rot, but still has a higher yield.”

“I found Nakorn’s presentation really interesting,” says Mike Haines. “We know that we don’t want blunt-nosed leafhopper in the bogs, as they spread false blossom disease, but it was interesting to hear his hypotheses and thoughts on why this interaction occurs, like how the leafhoppers that feed on diseased plants end up being larger adults, and that nutrient levels are actually higher in infected plants.”

All in all, it was another productive day for our Pine Island team as well another excellent program put together by Dr. Cesar Rodriguez-Saona. Thank you, Cesar!

Ocean Spray Regional Meeting

This week, Ocean Spray held one of their regular regional meetings at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research to provide a business and cooperative update for New Jersey grower-owners. Not everyone manages to get to every Annual Growers Meeting, so it was a great chance to hear from CEO Bobby Chacko as well as several senior executives about where Ocean Spray is, where we’re going, and how we’re getting there!

Pine Island CEO and member of the Ocean Spray Board of Directors Bill Haines opened the meeting by introducing the management team. “Two things you can count on from this management team: one, they’re working hard, and two, they’ll tell us the truth,” he said.

Bobby said, upon his selection, “Ocean Spray’s story is close to nine decades old, but we are just getting started,” and everyone’s presentations this week are in line with that vision. We heard from Board Chairman Peter Dhillon, Bobby, and new senior executives Joseph Vanderstelt (SVP, Chief Financial Officer), Brian Schiegg (SVP, Chief Commercial Officer), and Jamie Head (Chief Information Officer), as well as board advisor Marla Gottschalk. Each speaker gave us a little bit of their background and what strengths they bring to Ocean Spray as an organization as well as their vision for the coop’s future. They touched upon supply, marketing, and the importance of emphasizing that the company is grower-owned, and spent a great deal of time answering questions both respectfully and openly.

“I thought it was great,” says grower Steve Sooy. “The more they’re here to talk with us, the better off they are and the better off we are. I appreciate straight talk, no sugarcoating, and they gave us that.”

“Honesty,” Steve says. “You can’t ask for better than that.”