Winter’s end

Our March tasks remain much the same as they did in February, right down to working around the inconsistent weather!

When a winter storm is expected, the number one priority is checking the water. The team checks for washouts, makes sure nothing’s too high or too low, and makes sure there’s no water on the dam itself. Team members make sure the main pathways are cleared; in order to do that, we send the front loaders home with some of them, which means once the snow hits, they can plow themselves out and start clearing the main dams. Then the rest of the team are able to go check the water or get to one of our facilities to do indoor work. Fortunately, we haven’t had high snow accumulation this year!

While the snow has been melting quickly, the frequent rains interspersed with low temperatures have been a persistent challenge all winter for our team.

We are continuing to run at least two sanding teams, weather permitting, as well as working on survey lines and our ongoing current bog renovation project.

While there was some concern last month that our team would not be able to do any prescribed burning, we did end up with enough clear, dry days that we were able to get a little done here and there.

When the weather isn’t coperating, the team continues to keep busy on several indoor tasks!

Post-harvest tasks

Harvest is over and the winter flood hasn’t started yet, but our team is getting a lot done during this in-between time!

One of the biggest tasks is getting the swan string set up. “The swans arrived Tuesday,” says operations manager Matt Giberson. “We’ve had teams out setting up the swan string, and this year we’re trying out the laser in the middle of Sim Place.” While last year we tried putting the Agrilaser in the iddle of the farm, Matt thinks that particular area might have been too big to have the laser be an effective deterrent. “We’re going to try it out at Sim Place because the bogs there are so big that we have issues with swan string staying up all winter. If it doesn’t work there, then we’ll reassess.”

Other tasks involve raking and some interior ditching out at Sim Place, especially in places where the vine growth is so thick that it’s starting to cover the ditch completely. This can lead to a lot of standing water, which is no good at all for cranberries.

For instance, our team is also working on some areas with Phytophthora at one of our systems by putting down some sand and replanting some small patches this spring. In addition, we’re going to continue trenching for additional drainage as well as exterior ditching with the excavator, which will help us when we take off water in spring.

Our Facilities/Equipment team is also hard at work winterizing pumps and getting the second 12-foot sander ready for the sanding this winter as well as repairing and storing harvest equipment to make harvest prep for next year as painless as possible!

Our team also plans to hold off flooding if necessary until the maintenance work is done. “We’re not in a hurry,” Matt says.

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!

Work anniversary – Jeremy Fenstermaker

Last month another one of our valued team members celebrated a work anniversary: Jeremy Fenstermaker has been here at Pine Island for fifteen years! Jeremy is both versatile and affable, which makes him a valuable resource for everyone at Pine Island from CEO Bill Haines all the way down to your humble blogger.

ICM manager Mike Haines has worked closely with Jeremy since coming on board full time. “I mainly work with Jeremy on growing decisions. The great thing about Jeremy really is his versatility; he’s so knowledgeable about just so many different aspects of the farm, and he’s taught me a lot about growing decisions over the past couple years. He’s got so much experience with building bogs, renovation, water management, harvest . . . he knows a lot. And the great thing is, he has no problem with sharing that knowledge; he genuinely wants to help you learn, and is very willing to work together to teach new guys. When I first started, it was all pretty new to me. I’d worked with cranberries some, but making decisions about fertilizer, for example, was tough at first. A lot of the things we need to look for with plant nutrition are very subtle, so having Jeremy explain using knowledge gained from his own past experience has been hugely informative. He knows exactly what decisions he’s made in the past and the effect those decisions have had: he’s dealt with it, paid attention, learned it really well, and it’s just a big confidence booster to have him says ‘yeah, that sounds about right’ or ‘based on my experience this is what I would do.’ He’s easy to work with, and he’s also just fun, which is great when you’re working long days or in bad weather. It makes days go by quickly and pleasantly.”

While COO Bryan vonHahmann has only been here for four years, he’s impressed with Jeremy’s work. “I think he’s grown with Pine Island both personally and professionally over the time I’ve worked with him,” Bryan says. “He’s a bright guy, very intelligent, and finding the perfect position for his skills and abilities has been good for both Pine Island and him.” There are drawbacks for this, of course: “He’s often wanted for consulting on various things regarding growth and irrigation, among other things, but he already has a lot to do,” Bryan says. “So what we need to do is build that support for him by training other people and let him focus on certain areas. He’s got a tremendous skill set: harvest, designing bogs and irrigation systems, just growing the crop. His main focus now is bog design and irrigation consulting, and it’s been a win-win for both him and for the company.”

“Jeremy’s valuable in a lot of ways,” says Bill Haines. “His knowledge of growing cranberries has been a huge asset to Mike, and particularly valuable, as far as I’m concerned, in his contribution to the growth program. He’s been very creative about redesigning the bogs to make them more efficient for harvest, for use of water, and in general. And his redesign of a lot of our old irrigation systems is making us much more efficient, because we’re using less water but we’re getting better coverage and as a result, better crops. He’s thoughtful, he’s analytical, he’s patient, and an extremely valuable member of the team. And he’s a pretty funny guy, too!”

His main drawback appears to be that he’s a Steelers fan, but nobody’s perfect. Thanks for all of your hard work over the past fifteen years, Jeremy; we appreciate you more than you know!

March storms

Every year, we post an update about looking forward to spring, and it seems like every year, the first week of spring arrives via snowstorm!

The most recent nor’easter to come through this area left us without power for two days, but had the power not come back today, our team was prepared, thanks to the thunderstorms from June 2015!

Our winter storm prep remains basically the same every year: the number one priority is checking the water. The team checks for washouts, makes sure nothing’s too high or too low, and makes sure there’s no water on the dam itself. Team members make sure the main pathways are cleared; in order to do that, we send the front loaders home with some of them, which means once the snow hits, they can plow themselves out and start clearing the main dams. Then the rest of the team are able to go check the water or get to one of our facilities to do indoor work.

That means the Equipment/Facilities team also takes some precautionary measures, making sure those generators are ready to go in case we lose power for an extended amount of time. They also make sure the heat is turned up in any vacant properties onsite, just in case. “We also pack the shop with equipment to work on,” manager Louis Cantafio said last year. “That way, we don’t have to dig it out, or start it in the cold, or fill the shop with melting snow. We go over all the loaders, make sure they’re ready to go before the operators bring them home.” Then, once the storm hits “we have to get all the egresses open and get rid of snow everywhere we need to store incoming deliveries.”

Fortunately, the power outage didn’t last too long this time, and the snow seems to be melting quickly! Could this end of this long winter finally be in sight?

Blog anniversary: 2018

This week is the six year anniversary of the Pine Island Cranberry website, and it’s certainly been an eventful year!

Our normal yearly workload proceeded much as it usually does, with our annual schedule of bog renovation, frost, planting, and sanding, as well as the yearly harvest.

We had our annual visit from Dr. Joan Davenport, and made some changes to our plant nutrition program, and dealt with the usual seasonal tasks for summer, winter, and spring.

Some team members celebrated some big work anniversaries, and everyone celebrated a couple of safety milestones by getting to go home a little early! We also welcomed two new employees this year on our Facilities and Equipment team and at the office, and are currently looking for someone to join our ICM team!

It’s been a huge year for our stewardship work with New Jersey Audubon and Pine Creek Forestry. The Northern Bobwhite Quail Initiative continues to go well, and even received some national and state recognition! We’re truly honored to be working with such great partners on such an important project.

Harvest continues to be the topic our readers are most interested in, and this year, they got to see a bit more than usual! In addition to our weekly blog posts, we received visits from both Nora Muchanic and Mike Jerrick, as well as several print publications. We’re always glad to tell people about doing what we love, and how our team does whatever it takes to make the prettiest sight in the pines happen, year after year!

Last but not least, we got to celebrate at a very special Annual Growers Meeting, which we’re planning on enjoying for quite some time.

We’re so glad you’ve continued following us from “Bog to Bottle” (as one of our favorite people at Ocean Spray likes to say) for the past six years, and we’re looking forward to keeping you updated for many years to come!

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!

Work anniversaries!

This month, we celebrate work milestones for two of our team members: Carlos Baez and Jose Cruz-Soto, better known to all of us as Blondie!

Carlos has been back with us full-time for ten years now, but he’s actually been around for what seems like forever, first starting out as a seasonal worker and eventually moving up to Equipment Supervisor. “It’s great to have someone knowledgeable and capable backing me up when I’m not here,” says his manager, Louis Cantafio. “There can’t be interruptions in the service that the shop provides, so it’s important we have someone here to place orders, schedule jobs, and to make sure service calls in the field don’t go unanswered. We have to do what we do every day, and when I’m not here, we can count on Carlos for that. I never have to worry that things won’t get done.” Carlos enjoys being here, as well, Louis says. “I know he likes it here. And he’s here for us, there’s no doubt about that.”

Fellow equipment team member Ernie Waszkiewicz agrees: “He gets done what we need to get done; he’s a good guy.”

CEO Bill Haines also has high praise for Carlos. “Carlos started here I don’t know how many years ago as a seasonal employee with the harvest crew. He came on board as a full time employee helping Mike Guest on facilities, and then when we were kind of in a pinch and shorthanded at the old shop, he stepped in and held the fort for a long time. I’ve always appreciated that. He’ll do anything you ask him to do, even if it’s outside of his duties at the shop. He’ll make trips to the airport to pick up seasonal employees, he’ll come to work in the middle of the night if we need him. He’s always a guy you can count on.”

Blondie’s been with us now for twenty years and is the team early bird! “If I’m not the first one here in the morning, it’s because Blondie is,” Louis says. “He’s here and he’s out back, cleaning out the bus from the day before, or scrubbing out his water jug, getting the ice and the water for his crew set up for the day. While everyone else is getting here and settling in he’s already got 20 minutes in getting stuff ready for his crew. He really looks after his people; he makes sure they have their water, they have their tools, they have ice. He’s good.”

“Blondie also known as Smiley for good reason,” says Matt Giberson. “He’s always ready to work. He usually beats me to the shop by 6:15 and is the first one to greet me in the morning. His great enthusiasm,and ‘whatever it takes’ attitude is exactly what you get every morning no matter what the conditions outside. He never complains, and is always willing to ask questions to make things better here at Pine Island.”

“Blondie is one of those quiet guys that does a lot of thankless work, but it never occurs to me to ask if he’s here or not, because Blondie is always there and always has been, ” Bill says. “I couldn’t ask for a more loyal employee.”

“Pine Island is lucky to have those two on our team,” Bill says. “I’m glad they’ve been here for so long, and I hope it says something about what a good workplace we have here that we have employees like them who commit to us for decades.”

Safety milestone

Safety is one of our ever-present goals at Pine Island Cranberry, and our team has regular meetings to keep everyone updated and to issue any necessary equipment.

We also like to celebrate when our team hits important targets, and this month Pine Island has once again made it over a year accident-free!

“Safety is very important to us at Pine Island; it is an obligation we all share,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “Our team operates large, powerful equipment – sometimes in inclement weather and tough situations, so they have to be safety conscious at all times, for themselves and fellow workers. We want our employees to go home at the end of the day in the same condition they came: that is, healthy and free from injury. Their families count on this! We continually discuss the value of safety to instill the behaviors that promote working safely.”

Prevention, of course, is a top concern. “The best way to keep everyone accident-free is to be proactive in setting up an environment that’s conducive to safety in the first place,” says Mike Haines. “Maintaining the dams, the equipment, the buildings; that means we’ll keep to a minimum any unexpected events that can lead to an injury. Making sure everyone is provided hardhats, ear protection, and gloves ensures that they’ll have them when they need them, and so does wearing them at any time an accident could happen. A lot of things happen before that ultimately lead to accident or injury or whatever, so staying on top of those little things helps make sure a bigger thing doesn’t occur.”

Safety training doesn’t just happen in the field, either! “The instructional videos on safety that Debra [Signorelli, our office admin] provides for our workers has insured the safety of our team,” says Matt Giberson. “The videos have helped seasonal workers understand the importance of chemical application. Debra is currently looking at additional training videos that will continually improve the safety around the farm. Another practice that we have put forth in recent years is the importance of head protection via hard hats. With the renovation process at full steam ahead, our team is around a lot of heavy machinery. So the use of hard hats and proper training of our operators has helped provide a safer working environment for all.”

Matt Stiles attributes a good record to good everyday practices. “Even if it’s a routine job, we always take the time to make sure we’re doing it right,” he says. “We’re careful with everything we do. And it’s not just the managers; guys like Juan Carlos and Jonathan and Israel make sure everyone is properly equipped and really keep a close eye out to make sure we’re all doing what we need to do.”

“I’m very proud that we kept all of our folks safe for a full year,” says Louis Cantafio. “In an operation as large as ours, with ‘whatever it takes!’ as our starting point, it can be very difficult for each of us to keep ourselves safe: ‘if I just reach a little further; if I just yank a little harder; if I just go little faster; if I just try a little harder; if I just do whatever it takes!’ We have all done it. We will all do it again. Real success, team safety, comes when we work to keep each other safe. ‘Let me help you with that; let me come with you when you pull boards at night or break ice; don’t forget forgot your safety glasses; back away while I raise this load.’ We have all managed to do it together for a full year. We will all come in tomorrow and work at doing it again. Great job on everyone’s part! Way to keep each other safe!”

CEO Bill Haines is especially pleased, and as a reward, we all got to go home a little early last week! “The team is working long hard days to get stuff done, just like all of us. And it’s a credit to them that they’ve done it safely and everyone goes home at the end of the day healthy,” he says.

Congratulations on another job well done, guys!

Bog renovation 2017 – updates!

Bog renovation has been ongoing since last fall, with 80 acres as our goal for 2017 and 107 acres in 2018.

Our bog renovation team has made some changes to our process this year! “This time, what we’re trying to do is renovate one complete system at a time,” explains COO Bryan vonHahmann. “We’re going to complete a whole system, then go on to the next system, complete that one, and so on. We’re trying to structure our completion date with when Abbott can get us plants, as soon as possible.” That means the team should finish the first system, including planting, by mid-May. “We’re going to put the plants in early, see how they do, then we’re just going to keep going every month,” Bryan says. “During our last reno we planted 60 acres in a month, which is a lot of work. Planting in the heat is pretty stressful on the crew, as well, so trying to do it in one week intervals instead as well as moving the timing helps with that, too.”

There have also been some challenges with this year’s project! “Since we tried to do as much renovation through the wintertime as possible, we have problems with reservoirs being high and bogs being flooded around the ones we’re renovating,” Bryan says. “The water comes through dams and gets into bogs we’re trying to work on. We bought a new pump last year, which runs 24/7 just to keep bogs we’re working in drained.”

Another challenge was staffing: many team members take well-deserved time off in the winter, so between vacation schedules and our usual winter sanding going at full steam, our team just did what they could to keep the reno bogs dry. Our team is also building some new tools for renovation, which should help us improve how we install underdrain, “We designed and built a new plow to help us remove dirt and help put underdrain in, which should also help a lot,” Bryan says. “We’re trying to do more of our own stuff instead of using subcontractors.”

One of Pine Island’s strength is that our team doesn’t keep doing something just because that’s the way we’ve always done it, and we’re looking forward to seeing how this new approach to renovation works!