Cranberries in South Jersey

by R. Cohen | Nov 5, 2007
Cranberries in South Jersey Long before the first white settlers came into the area, the Lenni-Lenape Indians made their home in the river valleys of what is now South and central New Jersey. The first known harvesters of the cranberry in the state, the Lenni-Lenape used the wild red berry for food. The Lenni-Lenape word for the berry was "pakim", meaning "noisy berry."

From these beginnings, "cranberrying" in New Jersey became a major industry, with approximately 3,500 acres under cultivation. The state ranks third in the nation in cranberry production, producing about 10 percent of the total national output. Cranberry cultivation in New Jersey is believed to have begun in 1840 by a man named John Webb, who established a cranberry bog in Ocean County near Cassville. It is reported that he received $50 per barrel for his cranberries, which were bought by ship merchants, who sold them to whalers. Cranberries were kept on board ships in barrels of cold water for the sailors to eat. They contained Vitamin C and helped ward off scurvy, which plagued seafarers on long trips.

Most of New Jersey's cranberry crop is marketed through Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. The Ocean Spray plant in Bordentown borders land that once belonged to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I, Emperor of France. Joseph was the King of Spain and Naples during Napoleon's reign, but came to Bordentown for safety after his brother was dethroned.

Burlington, Atlantic, and Ocean counties are major cranberry growing areas in New Jersey. The native fruit is also grown in Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties. The cranberry harvest begins in New Jersey shortly after Labor Day and extends through October. If frost threatens, the vines must be protected. This is done by flooding the bogs well over the top of the vines. When the water freezes to a depth of about 8 inches, the water underneath the protective coating is drained away so the vines can breathe. In the summer the vines must be irrigated during hot, dry spells. Other essentials in cranberry care are fertilizing, pruning of the vines, and weeding.

The state's leading cranberry grower is William S. Haines of Chatsworth, who has over 700 acres planted in cranberry vines. Haines' family has a history of cranberry growing. His grandfather, Cap Haines, a Civil War veteran, built cranberry bogs in an area known as The Birches "about 1895," according to Bill. Two of Cap Haines' sons, Ethelbert and Ralph (Bill's father), developed the extensive Chatsworth property and gave it the colorful name of Hog Wallow. The former wilderness area yields an average of 100 barrels of cranberries per acre, with a total annual crop of about 70,000 barrels.

Experiments with the wet pick method of harvesting were carried out in 1962, and Haines was a wet pick pioneer in New Jersey. Today, Haines harvests his entire crop by this method, which enables him to harvest 95% of the berries in 60% of the time it formerly took him to dry pick. The shortened harvest time also decreases the danger of crop damage by frost. Most of New Jersey's growers truck their berries to the Ocean Spray cooperative in Bordentown for immediate drying, but Haines has his own sorting house because of the great volume of his cranberry operation. In his sorting house, the first step is to remove grass and leaves from the berries. The berries are put on rubber belts. The leaves and grass stick to the rubber, riding up the belts to be dumped. The berries, meanwhile, roll down to another conveyor which takes them to the dryer.

Martin Decker, Jr., Extension Agricultural Engineer at the College of Agriculture, Rutgers, developed the dryer used in New Jersey. It consists of an inclined screen built over air chambers. As the berries pass down this screen, they are bathed first in hot air and then in cool air so they come off the assembly line dry and cool, their quality intact. Then comes a series of steps to ensure that only top quality berries make it to the market. First, the berries go through a separator, or bounce machine, where they have seven chances to bounce over wooden barriers. If they are not firm enough to bounce, they drop down to discard bins. Berries that pass this test are then screened by inspectors who remove any fruit not up to Ocean Spray standards.

At Haines' sorting house, the screened berries go into a hopper to be weighed out and put into pallet boxes for shipment to Bordentown, where the cooperative takes over for processing and marketing.

In the early days, before the advent of harvesting machinery, cranberries were first picked by hand and then by the use of hand scoops which combed the berries from the vines. Development of mechanical pickers began after World War II. Now, nearly all of the country's cranberries are brought in by mechanical pickers. The Darlington picker, widely used by growers in all areas where dry harvesting is practiced, was invented by Thomas B. Darlington, a cranberry grower in New Lisbon, New Jersey. Resembling a power lawn mower, it is pushed along the dry bog by a worker. The rotating teeth scoop into the vines and lift off the fruit, which is carried by a conveyor belt to a removable container attached to the handlebars.

For more South Jersey History, visit our History page.

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