Spring water

It’s been a focused month at Pine Island Cranberry as our team got back to work and finished the annual tasks of removing the winter flood and preparing for frost.

Bog flooded for winter

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?” For every acre of vines, cranberries require ten acres of water. Therefore it is another one of Pine Island’s top priorities to make sure our surrounding environment is as protected as possible. As we said about removing the winter flood, good water management is not only the crucial part of our work here at Pine Island – it’s essential to the balance of agriculture production with the Pinelands environment.

Reservoir

The Cohansey-Kirkwood aquifers lie beneath the surface of the Pinelands, containing enough water to cover the state of New Jersey six feet deep. Most of the water in the aquifer comes from rain, which also helps fill our reservoirs. When we flood the bogs for the winter, we direct the surface water (using damns, canals, and ditches) to the bogs at the highest elevations. Gravity causes water to flow downhill, so, once the bogs at higher elevations are flooded, we can easily direct it downhill to bogs at the lower levels.

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 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.

Gerardo pulling boards

water moving to the next bog

The next stage is 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. Our team worked extra hours in April to make sure it was all done before temperatures started to drop at night.

Ultimately, it is our Pine Island team’s dedication to our land and our surrounding environment that makes us what we are: growers dedicated to doing what we do better every day.

Back in action!

Spring stops for no one, especially in agriculture, and this week Pine Island’s team went back to work with even more safety precautions in place!

“We returned to work with our top priorities being safety and the current crop, and we’re taking both very seriously,” says COO Bryan vonHahmann. “We’ve trained and are retraining on social distancing; we’re sanitizing all equipment and common tools and areas several times a day, offering rubber gloves and face masks, and providing hand sanitizer at all jobs and at common buildings. We’re also designing the various tasks that are needed in a way that minimizes co-mingling people and maximizes distance between people. If proper distancing of at least six feet cannot be obtained (such as in vehicles, or meetings, providing instruction, et cetera), everyone should wear masks. We are also asking that everyone minimize gatherings, meetings, and personal interactions.”

As far as tasks are concerned, Bryan says: “This week, we worked extended hours to catch up on our water draw and sprinkler install; by the end of today we’ll be caught up. Planting for renovation is being delayed at least one month to reduce close interactions and working through the logistics of getting the plants.”

“We’re no longer meeting at the shop in the morning; instead everyone is to go directly to their job site,” says manager Matt Giberson. “Everone is going to keep all equipment clean; for example, if they’re in a loader, they’re going to clean it first in the morning when they get in, then again after lunch, and once more at the end of the working day. If someone (or a family member) is not feeling good, they’re to call me and not come into work. I’m doing my best to keep people on the same job or at least within the same group to the best of my ability.”

The team has spent this week removing the winter flood and so far are hitting their targets! “Our goal is to take down 106 acres of swan string and to do five irrigation systems per day, with the final target to have all the water off by April 30th,” Matt says.

Our team is working long hours to make sure everything gets done (“We got a lot done this week, even better than I expected,” says CEO Bill Haines) and will be taking a well deserved break over the holiday weekend before going back Monday to start all over again, and everyone will keep looking at ways to make it even better. “This situation will show us new ways to do things,” Bryan says.

Hope all of our readers are continuing to be safe and well!

From Bill’s Desk: Keeping our team safe

One in an occasional series of entries from CEO Bill Haines.

On Monday, March 23, Bill addressed our team about recent world events and how Pine Island has decided to handle the pandemic in the short term.

After giving it a lot of thought, we decided the prudent thing to do was to shut down for at least a week. The management team will meet next Monday and assess what’s going on in the world, and then we’ll decide whether we’re going to work next Tuesday or not. If we decide it’s a no go, we’ll wait another week and assess.

We understand that everyone has families to take care of and bills to pay, so we’re going to make sure everyone gets their weekly paycheck.

We also understand that this is a farm and Mother Nature doesn’t wait. We need to grow the crop and we need to harvest it. We understand this is going to put us behind. Whenever we can come back to work, we’re going to do whatever it takes to catch up. If that means working dark to dark and Saturdays and Sundays, that’s what we’re going to do. We’ve never been through a pandemic but we’ve been through plenty of emergencies: in the Labor Day flood of 2012, we had 16 inches of rain in 9 hours that took out all of our reservoirs and many of our interior dams, as well as damaging irrigation systems. And we put all that back together in three weeks and started harvest right on time. So I know that my team can do that; we can do whatever it is we have to do.

I also want to remind everyone to do everything that’s been requested of them in terms of social distancing and washing their hands, etc. This is to keep everyone safe. This is not just time off; this is to keep all of us safe. Stay home, take care of yourselves, and take care of your families.

For our readers: please take care of yourselves and stay safe. We’re all in this together!

The 2019 harvest begins!

Our busiest season has finally begun! Our harvest crews started picking at the southern end of the home farm and out at Sim Place this week.

“We started out at High Bridge because those are now the oldest beds planted with early-season varieties,” says CEO Bill Haines. “These bogs in particular are planted with Crimson Queen, which are our earliest variety. We like to plant those furthest from the center of the farm. As we finish picking beds we’re working our way closer and closer to home. It means we don’t have to travel as much for frost, among other things.” Conditions have been pretty favorable as well, he says. “The water level is good. And it hasn’t been too hot, either. We even had frost last night, which will help us with color.”

As of right now, we’re only running two crews, but expect that to change shortly. “We’re also picking the young bed at Osborne Spung for first time, which have been planted in Mullica Queen,” Bill says. “This will be our first significant harvest for that particular variety.”

Our team has had to make some adjustments to their approach, as they do every year. “Some of the regulations have changed with Ocean Spray on rot percentage and color,” says manager Matt Giberson. “Which means we need to keep an eye on things. When you’re driving by a bed it looks red enough on top but under the canopy it’s white, so we have to manage that. And rot tends to be high in the young beds before a canopy is fully established, so we’re testing samples before it goes to Ocean Spray. If the numbers aren’t great, we’re taking it to our own packing house and clearing it out before we send it up the road.” Matt also notes the optimal conditions this week. “We have plenty of water, but it has been a little dry. We’re starting wells now in order to be prepared in case it remains dry; we haven’t needed to in a long time so it’s good to have them ready anyhow.”

In general, the color is looking really good this year, he says. “Better than it was at this time last year. The TAcy seems really good for the Crimsons. We’re starting our third crew this weekend. The lake’s done, we’ll have Panama done Tuesday, then we’ll finish getting the early stuff from Sim Place. We’ll get the Ben Lears out, go down through Worth Tract, and pick all the young beds.”

If Matt had just one wish for the upcoming season? “We could use just a half inch of rain. Just a little bit! But I think it’s going to be steady as she goes. We got frost a little early this year, but that should help with the color. When we don’t have to chase the color, it all goes a little bit easier.”

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!