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Wading Game

A handful of hearty farmers maintain Jersey’s cranberry harvest heritage.

Posted September 13, 2011 by Fred Goodman

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New Jersey Cranberries
A worker helps corral the floating crimson haul in a special area of Double Trouble State Park in Ocean County, west of Toms River.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

New Jersey Cranberries
Steven Lipman, the son of Jeffrey Lipman. He operates the knocker, a machine that shakes the cranberries off the vines, which are submerged just prior to the harvest.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

New Jersey Cranberries
After the berries are washed and sifted, a conveyer belt loads them onto trucks bound for processing plants and ultimately, tables.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

New Jersey Cranberries
Reining in the catch.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

On a clear, cool October morning Ned Lipman—a pole in one hand, a flag in the other, his body sheathed in a pair of waders—is working his way carefully through four feet of tea-colored water while I, decked out in similar gear, follow gingerly a few yards behind.

Ned uses the pole first, probing the bottom of the cranberry bog for holes that might trap the three tractor-like combines idling 50 yards behind us. Just below the water’s surface the rows of cranberry vines become easier to see as the morning mist dissipates, their berries waving in the water like millions of costume beads. Satisfied the route is safe, Lipman wheels around to face the combine drivers and, swinging his flag, summons the vehicles forward.

The air reverberates with the shuddering of the combines, and it’s easy to see why they’re referred to as “knockers” and “egg-beaters”: the bodies of the combines ride above the water while their 8-foot-wide beaters, which look like oversized lawnmower blades, knock the berries off the vines. Chaff, twigs and berries float in their wake, surrounding me. Before long, the surface of the bog is covered with bobbing red fruit. New Jersey’s cranberry harvest is under way.

Lipman, a Rutgers professor for more than 30 years, is a second-generation cranberry farmer and a third-generation educator. His grandfather was the first dean of agriculture at Rutgers. The family gravitated toward cranberry farming when Lipman’s father, Edward, a Rutgers trustee, was working with Ocean Spray to beef up New Jersey membership in the cranberry growers’ cooperative. “One day a friend said to him, ‘If you’re going to recruit growers, you ought to become one yourself.’ He started with a bog and a shovel.” 

With cranberries then selling for $8 per 100-pound barrel—the Ocean Spray price for the 2010 harvest was $50—the Lipmans soon had cranberry juice in their veins and 465 acres of bogs in Berkeley Township. Ned and his brother Jeffrey, who farms with him, eventually deeded much of that land to the state. “We were being solicited by developers,” says Lipman. “Before he died, our dad let us know that wasn’t why he got into it. I don’t know anyone who loved cranberry farming more than him.”

Despite full-time careers—Ned teaches marketing and micro-economics at Rutgers and Jeffrey has an antiques business in New Egypt—the Lipmans had continued to farm 118 acres of cranberry bogs, including 28 acres worked under a special permit from the state on in Double Trouble State Park, a recreational area southwest of Toms River where the public has been welcome to watch the harvest each fall. Sadly, 2010 proved to be the last harvest for the Lipmans. Age (Fred is 62; Jeffrey, 67), illness and competing commitments have taken their toll. “It was a business decision, but an emotional separation,” Ned says. “These plants are like kids to me.”

The decision of one more farming family to hang up its bog-waders is a sign of the times for New Jersey. The state, which led the country in cranberry production during the first half of the 20th century, now ranks third behind Massachusetts and Wisconsin.

Advances in technology and horticulture have drastically increased the yield for New Jersey’s remaining cranberry farmers. In the 1920s, it took 12,000 acres to grow 100,000 barrels of cranberries; now the state’s farmers grow 550,000 barrels on 3,400 acres. The state Department of Agriculture estimates that there are about 35 growers remaining in the state, including the 20 associated with the Ocean Spray cooperative. Though small in numbers, they are prideful heirs to the 19th-century, do-it-yourself New Jersey cranberry farmers who staked their futures on cultivating a local swamp vine. “We’re descendants of a great tradition,” says Lipman.  

Double Trouble’s cranberry bogs are among the oldest in New Jersey, first planted in 1863 with vines native to the surrounding cedar swamps. “That’s essentially what this cultivar still is,” says Andrew Anderson, a resource interpretive specialist at Double Trouble. Even the park’s name stems from its agricultural past. As related by John McPhee in The Pine Barrens, his classic telling of area history and legend, the park owes its name to a cranberry dam that farm workers referred to as trouble because it often gave way—until the week the dam burst twice and became known as “double trouble.”

Once home to the largest cranberry bog in the state, the Double Trouble area was widely cultivated through the first half of the 20th century. But most of the region’s bogs were abandoned in the 1970s when Canada became an aggressive cranberry producer. The bogs subsequently returned to cedar and pine forest. What’s cultivated in the park these days is just 10 percent of the cranberry acreage here 40 years ago. Fourteen structures remain in the park from the old company town where migrant laborers once lived during the harvest, including a cranberry packing house where workers hand-sorted berries from Labor Day through Thanksgiving.

A similar history is preserved just to the west in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest (formerly Lebanon State Forest), where land first strip-mined for iron ore proved ideal for cranberry cultivation and led to the founding of Whitesbog Village. Also the birthplace of blueberry cultivation, Whitesbog is now operated by an historic trust which, along with the village, offers access to cranberry bogs, blueberry fields, canals, reservoirs and pine forests.

The biggest change in cranberry farming was the advent of wet harvesting, which began in the 1960s. Jose Rivera, Lipman’s crew chief, has been picking cranberries in New Jersey for 61 years. He was recruited in 1950 in Puerto Rico by a farm labor service and soon moved his family here. Rivera remembers when harvesting was done in dry fields. Sharp-toothed hand scoops were the primary tool, drawn through the vines to pull off the berries. A harvest that once took 30 to 40 workers a month can now be done by a crew of 10 in four days, with as much as 100,000 pounds of berries harvested in a day.

One thing hasn’t changed: Farmers still worry about the weather. Although 2009 produced a bumper crop, in 2010 cranberry farmers watched the summer’s excessive heat and late rains with trepidation. Ideally, cranberries want an inch of rain a week from June through September, then dry, cool weather. “We had 40 days where the temperature was over 90,” groused Ned Lipman. “The thunderstorms of the summer didn’t hit us.” As a result, the fields were “reservoir-dry” until harvest time—and the yield was way down. In 2009 the Lipmans harvested about 13,500 barrels of berries; in 2010, they struggled to make 6,800, with approximately 1,000 of them from the Double Trouble bogs. This year, with the Double Trouble bogs uncultivated and other New Jersey cranberry farmers contending with possible sun-scalding from excessive heat, the state Department of Agriculture expects the yield to fall again. 

Another natural challenge is pests, the most voracious of which are fire worms, tiny black-headed or spotted varieties that eat through the bud set and destroy the berry. Too small to be seen without close inspection, the telltale sign of infestation is several upright buds drawn together in a web. “You have to look every day and really scout for them,” says Ned, who has avoided the worms in Double Trouble but dealt with them at the bog in Toms River. 

The water harvest is possible because cranberries contain four air pockets that make them  buoyant. Throughout the growing season, the cranberries, which prefer the acidic soil of the bogs, must be fertilized like most crops for the best yield. Then, in the days preceding the harvest, the bog is flooded. After the beaters move through the bog and knock the berries off, they are corralled using a floating “cran boom”—a modified oil boom—drawing the fruit into a tight raft of berries.

Grabbing a rake, I join three men already in the bog, standing inside the circle of floating fruit. We rake the mass toward what looks like a huge drain but is actually a tube attached to a hose that sucks the berries up onto a waiting truck. Mounted on the top of the truck is a portable cleaning station manned by four laborers. The berries, chaff and twigs flow into a large vat of water that one worker stirs while another removes debris caught by an upright filter. The separated berries are then raked onto a moving belt that deposits them in a 20,000-pound capacity transport truck. Next stop: Ocean Spray’s New Jersey receiving station at Chatsworth.

Despite the smaller yield, Ned was satisfied with the 2010 harvest. “So few people get the privilege to be out here,” he said as he peered over the bog. “This is a day that would have made my dad happy. Every day is Christmas when you’re picking.”

Fred Goodman’s latest book, Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis, is published by Simon & Schuster. 

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A-Bogging We Will Go
Although there will be no cranberry harvest at Double Trouble State Park this season, village tours are available on request. Call the Interpretive Center at 732-341-4098. There also are trails for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.

Whitesbog Village in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, operated by the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, also will not be harvested this year but offers tours and other activities. Contact 609-893-4646. The state forest also has facilities for camping and multi-use trails.

Both sites hope the cranberry harvest tours will return in 2012.

Information on all of New Jersey’s state parks and forests can be found at state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/parkindex.html.


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