Winter flood 2018

The winter flood has begun!

As we said last week in our post about 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:

Our winter flood program starts with making sure the water in the reservoirs is at the level we need. If there has not 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. “Things are a little different this year,” says Matt Giberson. “We have so much water from all the rain that we haven’t needed to starting the wells. Which means we can be a little more at ease about things because we’re not worried about supply.”

water moving to the next bog

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. “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.”

This year, new team member Mike Scullion is learning how the winter flood works! “It’s going really great,” he says. “I’ve been learning a lot from everyone, especially Gerardo, Stiles, Matt, and Jeremy. I’m learning the topography of the whole farm, how to run water in different directions . . .it’s all really interesting and I’ve been enjoying it. One of my favorite things I’ve done here so far.” The entire process is complicated with a lot to learn, but, he says, “I’m starting to grasp things now. You always have to keep track of where the water is coming from, how much of it there is, and where you need to send it. But even the hard stuff is great; putting on my waders to get into a bog, breaking through the ice, I love it.”

Going to sleep

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.

Dam widening project

This year, one of our long-term ongoing projects is at last near completion: widening our dams and building turnarounds for easier travel during harvest. On a cranberry farm, dams serve two purposes: to detain the water used for irrigation and water management, and for vehicle use. Dam maintenance is highly important for both safety and equipment. Widening dams makes hauling easier, especially since some parts of the operation are quite a distance from our cleaning platform.

Now, instead of several trucks carrying two boxes, we can use a tractor trailer that carries nine and won’t need to use as many trucks. It will be more efficient for both the gathering team and the packing house platform, as well as freeing up team members to be elsewhere if we need them. We’ve planned it out so there’s a route where they can gather the bogs off one dam in order to widen as few turns as possible. It also makes room for new equipment like our bog side cleaners and our Gates Harrow harvesters.

“We’re very close to being done,” says bog renovations manager Steve Manning. “Mostly the gates are all done and we’re just moving dirt for now. It’s a lot easier when we’re doing an active reno because we’re already doing so much redesigning, but we’re trying to get a little ahead of that for future renovations by moving pump houses and shifting some other things around so we don’t have to do it later.” The most difficult part is working with the irrigation, especially in the summertime when heat can be an issue, but this week the weather worked in our favor. “You wouldn’t think this wet weather would help, but we got a lot done.”

“We have Sim Place, the lake, and the west side of 563 all done,” says operations manager Matt Giberson. “Now we’re working the middle, which has the most acreage, and is also the most complicated because of all the old bogs and their various shapes.” Back when the farm was founded, the bogs were dug by hand, so many of the older parts of the farm were designed by necessity to work around the topography. “We drove around a lot to look at everything and think about it for a while,” Matt says. “We’ve been working on this final stage over the last year, and should be done by harvest. We’ve tried to time it with the rain so we don’t have to worry about a heat run or irrigation run during gate installation. And we’ve been thinking ahead to when we renovate in 10 or 15 years down the road. We may end up adding some turnaround spots as we go, since during harvest we ideally want to be able to work from any corner we can. But as of right now, we’re looking to be ready by this year’s harvest.”

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.

Water drawdown – 2018

Spring finally appears to be hanging in there, 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 started the early draw the last week of March, but we decided to put it back on again in some of the Crimson Queen beds,” says Matt Giberson. “We decided we’re going to leave those on later this year, due to issues last year with them getting overripe. But the TAcy was right where it we needed to be so we thought we’d leave the water on to help with rot prevention.” (TAcy is an acronym for “total anthocyanin concentration” and is a unit of color measurement used in a cranberry.) The drawdown started in earnest on the first of April. “We’re shooting for 6 to 7 systems a day by the 25th because we’re going to start planting Cedar Swamp on the 23rd,” Matt says. He’s also trying to balance the needs of the frost team: “I’m trying to keep the focus on the home farm and leave Sim Place till last,” he says. “Sim Place is always a cold spot, so if we don’t have to make someone drive over there for frost I feel better. This week we’re working on the center of the home farm and west of Route 563 this week, and from there we’ll hit the systems at Red Road and Caley before we move on to Sim Place.”

After the water comes off, team member Waldy Blanco goes out with his crew to install sprinklers and make 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. 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.

Right now, the weather appears to be cooperating, and everything seems to be on track for the cold nights coming up in the next week or so!

Preparing for spring 2018

The weather sure likes to keep things interesting around here! Just two weeks ago we were experiencing an early spring, but this week we ended up shoveling several inches of snow. Nevertheless, spring should actually arrive for real before too long, and our team is getting prepared!

First, though, they have to do some clean-up. “A lot of tree branches came down during those last two storms,” says Matt Giberson. “So we’ve been clearing all that out.” The weather also, unfortunately, put a hold on sanding, but the team is very nearly finished! “We have two, two and a half days left,” Matt says. “We’re taking advantage of the time change to work a little later next week to finish it up. We would have been done today, if the weather had cooperated, but unfortunately it did not!”

Once that’s finished, though, the team will take advantage of the location. “Once we’re done, we’re going to patch up some dams that need work over at Sim Place, since we’ll have all the equipment we’ll need for that over there already. In the meantime, we’ll bring the sanding barges back and move on to installing gates up at the Cedar Swamp renovation.”

We’ll also be taking off the water before too long! “We’ll have a small crew doing early draw this year,” Matt says. “The plan is to do two to three systems a day to get ahead of that, concentrating on the young beds that we’re not going to frost protect this year. The priority will be getting Cedar Swamp ready to go so we can get the planting started. The earlier we plant, the earlier we get a head start on the growing season.”

As far as the established beds are concerned, the last two days of March the team will be installing the sprinklers before starting to take the rest of the water off the first week of April. “I haven’t done the numbers yet, but we’re shooting for four to five systems a day,” says Matt. “We’re not doing anything too unusual, but we have a lot of work ahead of us!”

The team has a busy spring planned, but there’s no doubt they’ll do whatever it takes to get it all done. And don’t forget, if you want to join them, we’re still looking for an ICM foreman!

Winter flood 2017

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.”

Autumn tasks

While getting the crop in is our #1 priority at Pine Island every autumn, our team is also hard at work on other important tasks through the harvest season and beyond!

Bog Renovation manager Steve Manning has been busy with the current stages of our reno program. “Most recently we’ve been out working on the next stage at Cedar Swamp,” Steve says. “We got about 3.5 inches of rain over the weekend, so we’ve had to spend some time fixing washouts. But we’re also getting ready to put down the underdrain as well as shoring up the sides of the new dams to help prevent erosion. Next week we’ll start putting gates in again.” With only two harvest crews running, he also has the help of stalwart team members Junior Colon, Wilfredo Pagan, Harry Mick, and Bob Heritage, as well Jeremy Fenstermaker to pitch in with the irrigation layout.

New Production manager Mike Haines is also pretty busy. “We took all the sprinklers out of the new beds a week ago after we got a decent amount of rain,” he says. “The main thing is preparing for all the the post-harvest stuff to improve things for next year.” This mainly means working on drainage improvement; water management, as always, is a top priority for our entire team. “We’ve gotten away from interior ditches in the past couple years and moved to drainage tile, or underdrain,” Mike says. “But last spring we decided to try putting in some trenches, and we’re going to try putting in some more this year. We’ll see if that helps. Trenches help get surface water off a lot more than drain tile did.” He’s expecting a trencher to arrive Monday, and our equipment team is also building one in-house. “I did a survey after the rain, because it was biggest storm all year,” he says. “The young beds generally held up pretty well. A couple of big washouts, which had Steve kind of disappointed. . .but I think it would have been a lot worse without the work he’s already been putting in.”

Other tasks include doing some raking in the bogs that got a little growth, and then working on this year’s sanding plan. And in the meantime, we’re going to finish bringing in those berries!

Fertilizer application – spring 2017

Fertilizer applications have begun; it’s officially the growing season! 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. “We’re at the roughneck stage right now for almost everything, and that means a lot of top growth as well as root growth, which in turn means the extra nutrition is necessary,” says manager Mike Haines. 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.”

In addition to aerial methods (as always, expertly done by Downstown Aero Crop Service) our team has also tried “fertigation”: a uniform application via irrigation system.

However, our team has decided to discontinue the practice for now. “We first tried it two years ago and ramped it up last year,” Mike says. “But with our current irrigation layout, it’s just not a fit at this point.” Instead, we’ll also make our usual applications via the new buggy method introduced last year!

Our team was really pleased with the results last year. We looked at the ones our neighbors were all using, which all have hopper spreaders, and decided we wanted something even more precise. So we added an air system with individual nozzles, and made improvements over the winter based on last year’s performance as well as modifying it for liquid application as well as dry.

Our team is also making sure the conditions are optimal: “We’re going to irrigate tonight, because it’s been so hot and dry,” Mike says. “We want to get that water into the soil so the plants can access those nutrients.”

Frost – modernization

Thanks to a warm spring, our team only just had their first full night of frost this season. 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.

“Mike [Haines] does the scouting and gauges each bog based on growth, and we base our temperature threshold on that growth,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. Because many of the plants weren’t so far along, the threshold was a lot lower, so the team didn’t have to run frost much until two nights ago. “I think we got a little rusty, because we haven’t done it in so long. Matt [Giberson] took precautions, though, and started all the systems at 2 the night before to make sure they were still working and everything was good.”

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.

Fortunately, our ongoing automation process is helping make this easier. “We have roughly 50 Joe Lord thermometers out there and probably 80 to 90 analog thermometers,” Bryan says. In some bogs, there is one of each type. “The automated thermometer gives us the initial indication that the temperature is dropping. When it hits the first threshold, it sends the notification, and Matt sends out 3 to 4 guys to look at the analog thermometers. When the 2nd alarm goes off he’s probably calling more people.” We haven’t maximized everything the new system can do for us yet, but as Bryan says, “We’re slowly walking into the technology.” The goal, of course, is to fully automate the system, and we’re getting there! Even with only partial automation we’re already increasing our efficiency as well as saving wear and tear on equipment.

Once the pumps all started, though, the work isn’t over. The next thing is making sure all the sprinklers are working correctly. This means driving around to check they’re running at full capacity. It may also sometimes be necessary to repair the sprinklers, as they won’t run at full capacity if something is blocking the line. This happens more frequently when the systems first start running, and becomes less of an issue after a few cold nights.

“The really interesting thing is seeing how air patterns and flow truly affect temperature,” Bryan says. “One end of a bog could be 34 and the other end at 39, so in some cases we might not start an adjacent system in order to limit water we put on beds to avoid rot. At the same time, though, the beds need the frost protection or we don’t get a crop at all.” It’s a delicate balance and takes some decision making. “Today people are out scouting to check damage; we did get some, but feel the plants will grow out of it. So we’ll work on refining our process, set the threshold at a higher temp as the plants grow and need more protection. A warm spring might have us out of practice, but it’s been good!”