N.J. cranberry farmers look forward to cooler weather for ripening crops

The recent unseasonably warm days are worrying South Jersey's cranberry farmers. Their crop needs cool weather to darken to its characteristic deep red.

Not everyone in the Delaware Valley is enjoying the summer-like temperatures of late. New Jersey’s cranberry farmers are hoping the weather cools off soon for the benefit of their crop.

Bill Haines is a fourth-generation cranberry farmer. His bogs stretch over 1,400 acres of the Pine Barrens in South Jersey. And he would like autumn to hurry up.

“From now until the first of November, a perfect day would be a high of 68 and a low in the evening of about 45,” said Haines in a bout of wishful thinking.

Cranberries start out pale green, then turn white and finally the characteristic deep red. The cool weather darkens the berries, making them more valuable to growers.

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“We get incented for color and firmness of the fruit,” Haines said. “We can actually get deducted if the percentage of white fruit is too high.”

Last year, New Jersey harvested about $28 million in cranberries. Once an industry of many small farms, consolidation has left the business to a handful of growers.

Cranberry vines are perennials, bearing fruit every year.

“We know where my great-grandfather first planted cranberries, and I think that some of those original vines are there,”Haines said. “And he started here in 1890.”

Back then, berries were mostly dry-harvested with special scoops bearing teeth that combed through vines. These days, Pine Island wet-harvests the berries, flooding each bog, then lassoing the berries onto a chute. After that, they’re sent to an Ocean Spray facility for processing.

“All of our cranberries go either for cranberry juice or Craisins — and there are no artificial colors, so you need the good dark cranberries to make those products,” said Haines.

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So far, he said, the unseasonably warm weather hasn’t drastically affected the crop.

And Haines said that, recently, he’s been more focused on the weather in Puerto Rico amid the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Because of the damage, some of his seasonal workers won’t make it to the mainland this year.

“It’s really tough. Most of my [seasonal] workers are from the island, and they’ve had difficulty contacting their families because cell service was knocked out,” he said. “Later on this season, we may be a little short staffed, because people that we know have lost their roofs. So it’s perfectly understandable that they’re not going to come over.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that deer, in addition to tundra swans, love cranberries. An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that tundra swans were the cranberry’s only animal predator. We apologize for the discrepancy.

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