Long before state laws protected the Pinelands from development and abuse, cranberry growers cultivated and preserved huge tracts of land to grow the tangy and tasty berries that now adorn our salads, complement our turkeys and fill. our pies.
In fact, these early producers, whose ancestors still cultivate the land, may have saved the Pine barrens, say New Jersey cranberry growers.
“Environmental sustainability is a major concern for New Jersey cranberry growers because we need a healthy environment to successfully grow our crop,” said Sean Cutts, a fourth generation grower who is president of the American Cranberry Growers Association. “We continue to protect and preserve this land today. We were the first conservationists in the Pinelands. ”
In the 1700s and early 1800s, huge swathes of Pineland’s forests were cleared to power homes, while iron from the bogs was mined and sand was scalped for glassworks, explained Brenda Connor, founder. of Native Fruits of Pine Barrens, which produces between 7 and 8 million pounds of cranberries each year.
Land was cheap, so farmers bought large tracts and started harvesting this native fruit.
“By setting up cranberry farms, they have helped heal the land and provide the long-term stewardship needed to protect water and restore forests,” Connor said. “It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that environmental conservation efforts were formalized and provided protections against mass development in the Pine Barrens. Without cranberry cultivation, South Jersey Pine Barrens could look a lot more like Long Island, NY, which was also an ecological region of pine forests before it was transformed into a metropolis. ”
Today, New Jersey is one of the nation’s leading cranberry producers. In 2020, New Jersey growers produced 49 million pounds of this tasty fruit on 2,700 acres worth $ 14.5 million, ranking New Jersey No. 4 in the country.
Despite the environmental benefits of growing cranberries, Connor said the main anthropogenic barrier to their operations is the lack of understanding of the environmental benefits of these swamp farms.
“Because we are growing in wetlands the regulations can become onerous and often people automatically resort to a mindset that all human activity is harmful,” she explained.
To understand how growing cranberries helps preserve the environment, you need to understand how they are grown.
First, cranberries don’t grow in water. They are perennials that naturally grow on low vines in sandy bogs. They are particularly fond of the very acidic soil of the Pinelands. Some cranberry bogs still in production are well over 100 years old.
Like any perennial, they grow through cold soil in early spring and produce crane-shaped flowers (hence the name cranberries). They typically start producing fruit in mid-July and ripen from late September to early November, depending on the variety, explained Stephanie Haines, social media coordinator, Pine Island Cranberry Co., another major producer of Pinelands.
That’s when the water comes in. When cranberry farms started around 1835, growers picked the crop by hand. In the 1960s, Haines’ grandfather, Bill Haines Sr., developed the idea of flooding bogs with water. Indoors, cranberries have small air-filled chambers that float the fruit, making it easier for farmers to use wet harvesting equipment to extract purple berries from bogs.
“You get more water and it’s easier on the vines,” Haines explained. “We also reuse the water from one bog to another when we collect one and move on to the next. “
This is why water is so important to these farmers and why they work so hard to protect the land surrounding the peatlands.
“Water is to growing cranberries what our circulatory system is to our body,” Connor said. “Cranberry growers are diligent stewards of water because toxins are said to pose a threat to our crops. “
The rule of thumb is that each bog needs about 10 acres to support it, the growers explained. Most growers implement forest management plans that include prescribed burns to clean forests of debris that feeds the fire. They also thin out forests to promote new growth. And the reservoirs they maintain and the peatlands they flood help to recharge the water tables.
“Our business preserves the land around us, helps stabilize nearby wetlands, and provides excellent habitat for wildlife,” Cutts said.
“We have a special relationship with the land,” he added. “It’s special for me to know that I am working the same piece of land that my grandfather and great-grandfather worked. We are very strongly tied to the land. It’s like a member of the family. ”
Nancy Parello writes frequently for NJ Advance Media / Jersey’s Best. A former Statehouse reporter, she previously worked for the Associated Press and The Record.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to all that makes Garden State great.