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.

Here comes the rain again . . .

The weather continues to be a challenge for our team this winter!

“The past year we’ve gotten about 70 to 75 inches of rain,” says manager Matt Giberson. “It just hasn’t let up; everything’s saturated.” This means that everything’s been a struggle: maintaining equipment, fixing dam erosion, and hitting this year’s sanding targets. “If it’s not raining, we’re getting snow. We get a freeze, then it thaws, then it freezes again; it’s extremely frustrating trying to get a rhythm going. We’ll get two good weeks and get a good chunk of it done, then things freeze up and we can only manage a day here, two days there.” If the weather remained consistently we could try ice sanding, but the frequent temperature changes make that difficult.

The heavy rains this winter have also called a halt to other late-season tasks. “It’s too wet to do any prescribed burning,” Matt says. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to do any this year.” The ground saturation is also causing issues for our or survey lines: “There are certain areas the guys can’t get through; nothing’s frozen over long enough that we feel comfortable sending someone out to work on them.”

In the meantime, the team continues to focus on indoor work! “The biggest thing right now is making gates! We’ve created an assembly line with six guys, and they’re making five gates per day right now; our goal is to try to get to six if we can work out a more efficient process. We’ve made all the sprinklers, but that’s part of regular irrigation maintenance that we do every year; the focus is to recycle and reuse as we need it for emergencies or repairs for spring.”

“The weather is the weather, but it’s still not fun. Two or three inches of rain at a shot, twice a week is a lot of deal with,” Matt says. Here’s hoping for a drier spring! And in the meantime, our team will keep doing whatever it takes to work with Mother Nature.

Heavy weather – spring 2018

While southern New Jersey hasn’t had a storm that’s been as heavy as other areas in the Northeast, we’ve still received more than our share of rain in the last week, which means our team has had to make some changes to our daily plan to compensate.

“If we get two inches tomorrow we’ll have people working indoors,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “It all needs to get done, but we’d like some projects to get done faster. But we can’t control the weather, so we’re making alternative plans depending on how much it hold us up. Up until now I’d say the rain was a good thing for us, but the next 2 to 3 inches I don’t think we need!”

One way it’s slowing us down: the current bog renovation. “We’ve had to switch things around a little because we don’t want to wreck the dams or the bogs we’re renovating,” Bryan says. “We have the Hydremas still plugging away but they’re hauling away less per load.” Bog renovation manager Steve Manning has made changes as necessary, however. “We’re still putting the subsoil in, but we’re holding off on the top sand, which in turn is holding up putting the pipe in and all that,” Steve says. “We can still screen sand in this weather, though, which is good. So in the meantime, we’re moving equipment around as needed, and we’ll probably do some work tomorrow for the canal we’re putting in.”

Our team has also had to make some changes to the fertilizer applications. “We should be doing those right now, but it will wash through soil faster, and the planes can’t fly when it’s overcast anyway,” Bryan says. “So if it clears up in time, the current plan will be to fly on Sunday.”

While some tasks are being held up, there have been some advantages. “We’re still doing a lot of scouting,” says Matt Stiles. “It’s actually been a help; we can walk the bog and see what needs to be fixed much more easily, particularly anywhere the drainage in a bog isn’t quite right.”

Water, as always, is a particular concern, but while we’ve had quite a bit of rain it hasn’t been more than the team can handle. “We’re keeping the reservoirs well below where we normally hold them,” says Matt Giberson. “It’s actually a little easier right now because with the rain and the warmer weather, we haven’t had to run for frost, so we can be a bit more aggressive with reservoirs and canals and just keep a eye on things in case we do get a big rain.” So far the farm has had about 3.2 inches this week, and they’re calling for another 2 to 4 over the next couple of days. Fortunately, Matt says, “It’s been steady but it hasn’t been dramatic. So we’ve just been trying to maintain dams ahead of time, crowning them when we can and fixing any erosion where it comes down really hard. But they’ve been in fairly decent shape; we haven’t really had a downpour so far, just half an inch here, half an inch there. And there hasn’t been any washout on the young beds, which is great.”

It all comes down to flexibility! 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.

Making it better

Last week we found everyone hard at work in the immediate aftermath of a devastating storm. This week the Pine Island team is doubling down and doing whatever it takes to make it even better. Everyone is pitching in wherever they can: everyone who can be spared is running a dump truck or an excavator or a front loader. We’re patching everything up so we can get the reservoirs up and move around the property easily. We’re replacing gates where they got washed out. All of our trucks and all of our equipment are running at full capacity and it’s taking a lot of coordination, as there are multiple teams working at multiple locations.

“Our big focus right now is rebuilding, sure,” says Fred Torres, general manager. “But water is on our minds constantly and we’ve been slowly raising the water levels in the reservoirs and canals. It hasn’t rained in a week, so we’ve been putting boards in to raise water levels for ditches in the areas we know will be stressed the most.” It’s steady but slow work; our team is busy fixing and refilling the main reservoir breaks, but it’s necessary to go slow; you can’t bring the reservoirs up too quickly as it’s bad for fresh fill. It won’t have settled yet and will be too spongy to hold the water back. We also need to turf up the sides a little to keep them from sinking. That’s a job in itself; we needed a massive amount of gravel very quickly. Our team has had to do some innovative thinking and find ways to get material to turf up the sides right away. With so much water moving through it’s necessary to get them as sound as possible. Fred has also sent out a small team to pick up loose berries: “Once the water dropped, some fruit was left on top of the debris; we needed to get it picked up so we don’t have a problem with rot. It’s always a concern.”

We’re also busy still prepping our equipment for harvest, and we have a team out mowing dams and trimming gates to gets the boards in before the harvest starts.

The work has been nonstop. On Wednesday alone, by Bill and Tug’s calculations, two crews had managed to haul 60 to 80 loads of fill to get dams patched and sides turfed up. The difference in just a week is amazing and is a tribute to our team and their willingness to do everything they do better every day.

It’s been tough, but we’re getting it done. Last week the airstrip reservoir looked like this:

But it’s been cleaned and patched and we’re working on the water levels:

It’s also now much easier to get around Sim Place; last week the dams by Otter #2 were in bad shape:

They’re looking much better already!

The events of the past week have been a true test of Pine Island’s operational efficiency. But our team has risen to the challenge; they are working seven days a week from just about sunup to sundown to get us on track for the harvest and make us better than ever. Junior Colon, a second-generation employee who’s been with us full time for over thirty years, said it best out at Sim Place: “We’re still going. We won’t stop, and we’ll get it done.”