It’s one thing to watch the cranberry juice commercials featuring two farmers standing waist deep in a flooded cranberry bog, but it’s an entirely different experience to see a field of cranberry bogs up close and personal, in your home state, with a family that has been growing for five generations over a span of 150 years. Yeah, that makes much more of an impression!
Joe Darlington and Brenda Conner, the owners of Pine Barrens Native Fruits in Browns Mills, embody what it means to be Jersey Fresh farmers: they’re passionate, knowledgeable, and very willing to share both their produce and their stories with anyone who asks. During a hot summer day, Darlington and Conner conveyed their passion for this tart fruit and for the land that has sustained them and their ancestors for 159 harvests.
“We [as cranberry farmers] are the first conservationists,” says Darlington.
“Environmentalists,” corrects Conner. “We take care of large acreage that we keep pure and pristine. It’s true land stewardship that works with nature. The smartest farming is working with nature.”
“This is native agriculture,” says Conner. “It’s sustainable because cranberries are native to the area. It’s a mutually beneficial lifestyle.” What does she mean by that? Well, for every acre of cranberries grown, they need to preserve seven to 10 acres of land around it. Cranberries thrive on clean water. In order to harvest the best cranberries, you need really clean water. Preserved land equals pristine water.
The Garden State’s Pine Barrens are ideal for cranberry growing, especially when it comes to water. Originating underground, the bogs sit at the top of a watershed, which helps the growers “divert water instead of use water.” Using capillary action to suck up water through their mere 6-inch root system, cranberries love to have the water “tickle their toes,” says Conner, the self-proclaimed Cranberry Whisperer.
New Jersey Cranberry Farming
Cranberry harvesting in New Jersey began after the iron and glass industry had all but depleted the Pine Barrens. The industry grew to over 400 farms with over 16,000 bogs. Now, however, Pine Barrens Native Fruits is one of just 20 remaining cranberry farms. Originally managing 3,000 acres, the farm is down to 800 acres, with 200 acres of cranberries. Their land also includes some of the most historic bogs and one of the oldest commercial blueberry fields in the country.
Taking a tour of the grounds with Conner in their state-of-the-art tour bus was the highlight of my trip. Conner shares family history about the origins of the cranberry bogs and the town of Whitesbog, which was founded in the 1700s (but is now a part of the Brendan Byrne State Forest). With 28 structures that have been restored, it’s a window into the past of what it was like hundreds of years ago when the iron, glass, and cranberry industries were in full swing.
(Side note: you may even get an admission from Conner about her own connection to the Jersey Devil. As it turns out Conner’s late uncle allegedly set up one of the best pranks of all time when he singlehandedly created a Jersey Devil manhunt by combining a scent that dogs couldn’t resist with super-sized footprints.)
If you’ve never seen a cranberry bog up close and personal, it’s quite an amazing site. Situated between ditches, these bogs contain thousands of vines spotted with flashes of bright red. Take a look underneath the green leaves and you’ll find even more cranberries.
“We focus on maximizing the crop, but we have to be aware of the long term effects,” said Conner who said they use an integrated crop management system which allows them to “diagnose” the crops and then determine what needs to be done including flooding and draining the bogs or using fertilizers.
“We go out and prescribe depending on the weather and other factors,” says Conner. “Chemicals cost money, so we don’t want to use a lot if don’t have to.” With their expertise and a strong relationship with the researchers at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension, a substation of the NJ Agricultural Experiment Station of Rutgers University located in Chatsworth, Conner has become an invaluable resource between the grower and the researcher. She helps the researchers understand what the growers want and need, while helping the growers implement the practices quickly. “It’s about being more proactive, not reactive,” says Conner.
Managing the farm in hopes that their grandkids will still be farming on it 50 years from now, Conner and Darlington have started educating the public about the importance of cranberry bogs for the Garden State. Last year, they hosted a Kick Off Harvest Festival, which they hope to start again next year. If you just can’t bear to wait till next year, you can visit the 32nd Annual Cranberry Festival in Chatsworth on October 17 and 18 to celebrate the nation’s third largest harvest. Or, get your fill of cranberry knowledge with a weekend tour at Pine Barrens Native Fruits. The first harvest tour is scheduled for this Saturday, September 25.
Pine Barrens Native Fruits also sells a number of products including their Cranberry Salsa, which Conner suggests cooking with chicken for dynamite enchiladas, and jams that are sold at Whole Foods and some Shop-Rite locations. In the end, Conner and Darlington just want you to come visit them. It’s a history lesson that begins with food and ends with family and tradition.
Pine Barrens Native Fruits