New Jersey Pine Barrens home to historic berry bogs
Mid-October is prime cranberry season in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where acres of low-lying bogs await the fall harvest.
The fields near Whitesbog Village, in the south central part of the state, are criss-crossed by narrow sandy lanes and surrounded by water-filled ditches. It requires a close look into the spreading vines to notice the red berries amid the delicate foliage, but once your eyes adjust, the "Rubies of the Pines" come into sharp focus.
A recent trip to the Pine Barrens with the Delaware Center for Horticulture introduced a small group of us to the state's historic cranberry and blueberry bogs, as well as some native wildflowers that thrive in the area's highly acidic, sandy, wet soil. (In Delaware, only the Johnson Farm of Smyrna produces cranberries commercially.)
Led by Pine Barrens botanist Ted Gordon, we drove a 15-passenger van across the soft "sugar sand" roads that intersect the bogs, and where one wrong turn would have dumped us into the cranberries.
We had just missed a wet harvest the day before. In a wet harvest, the bogs are flooded with water and the floating berries are corralled by a boom and then fed into a container and transported away.
Stepping into the soggy peat, we picked up some berries left behind by the automated harvest and marveled at their size, some the diameter of a quarter.
"Everything here is man-made," said Gordon, sweeping his arm across the stretch of bogs. "The forests were cut down and sand and water hauled in. The existing soil consists of lots of peat and muck."
The acidic soil base, as well as a high water table, provide ideal growing conditions.
"Cranberries have to be within 18 inches of the water table so vines can get moisture from below; even then they still must be irrigated during drought," said Gordon, who explained that large nearby reservoirs provide water for irrigation, frost control and wet harvests.
The bogs we visited are on state-owned land that is leased back to members of the Darlington family, who have been growing cranberries in Whitesbog since the mid-1800s and are descendants of the J.J. White family.In its heyday, Whitesbog Village was a bustling commercial center built around the cranberry and blueberry harvests. Today, the area is part of Whitesbog Preservation Trust, which offers tours, nature walks and other educational opportunities. Efforts are underway to restore some of the historic blueberry fields, and Whitesbog is known as "the birthplace of the highbush blueberry."
"All cultivated blueberries originated here," said Gordon, who told how in the early 1900s Elizabeth White, eldest daughter of J.J. White, began to experiment with the local wild berries.
Working with the Department of Agriculture, her collaboration eventually produced the sweet, waxy, tinted blueberry so prized today. Both cranberries and blueberries are now vital to New Jersey agriculture. The state is third in the nation in cranberry production and fourth in blueberry production.
Because of advancements in both plant vigor and harvesting methods, cranberries especially have seen a boom.
"In the 1800s it would have taken seven years to develop producing bogs; today it can be done in three years," said Gordon, who added that "New Jersey went from 14,000 acres in its heyday to 3,000 today, and they've increased the harvest by 100 barrels per acre."
Like blueberries, all cranberries developed from strains first found in the wild, but today's varieties are bred for size, resistance to heat and drought, and to span the season from early to late harvests.
"These cranberries are all cultivars, so they must be clonally propagated and vines can cost from $4,000 to $5,000 a ton," said Gordon. Larger berries are typically destined for juice and sauce; smaller, more intensely flavored berries are usually packaged and sold fresh.
Harvesting methods have also changed. All cranberries were originally "dry" harvests, picked by hand by hundreds of wo
rkers, then later with a scoop.
Today most dry harvested cranberries are done with a "Darlington," a machine invented in the 1950s by a member of the cranberry-producing family. Similar to a giant lawn mower, it can harvest about half an acre per day.
"Wet" harvests were introduced in the 1960s and are the predominant method for larger berries that will go directly to a processing plant.
Around the edges of the cranberry bogs, Gordon pointed out some of the native plants that spring up in the unique habitat that excludes invasive species.
"Everything growing along the canals belongs here," he said, brushing his hand over grasses, asters, goldenrods, mosses, sedges and other wildflowers.
Forests of Atlantic white cedar and pitch pine still dominate in the background, and under the ubiquitous blackjack oak grow the native lowbush blueberry.
Moira Sheridan is a Wilmington freelance writer and gardener. She is a graduate of the University of Delaware's Master Gardener program. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org