Forests in Belleplain used to be bustling this time of year with hundreds of workers picking cranberries and hundreds more crushing and canning the fruit in nearby factories.

Paul Champion was one of about 700 people who once scooped berries from the vines at April Brothers farm in northern Cape May County, a company that estimated it once supplied a fifth of the country’s cranberry sauce.

“You could make $20 easy,” said Champion, 76, of Upper Township. “It was hard on the back because you had to bend over, but back then, $20 could go a long ways.”

That was in the 1950s. The industry has long since left Cape May County, along with Atlantic and Ocean counties, so now practically all of the state’s cranberries are produced in Burlington County.

At one point there were as many as 475 cranberry growers in New Jersey. Now there are only a handful.

While New Jersey is near a historical low in total cranberry farmland at 3,000 acres, growers still produced more than $26 million worth of fruit last year and total yields are as high as ever.

This year’s harvest is wrapping up, and despite some flooding in September that caused fruit rot, projections are for this year to be better than last.

But while farms in the Midwest and Canada have been expanding to take advantage of growing global demand for cranberries, there is little chance the Garden State will ever have as much cranberry cropland as it once had.

“A lot of that ground is gone, period,” said Bill Haines, owner of the Pine Island Cranberry Company in Washington Township, Burlington County. “Either it’s been developed or it’s been purchased as public land. It just isn’t available.”

“And then the arduous and expensive permitting process to build a cranberry bog, to build dams and reservoirs, would make it basically impossible for someone to start a new farm,” Haines said.

Like elsewhere, the formerly flourishing berry businesses in Upper and Dennis townships shut down for a number of reasons, part of the cranberry’s tumultuous local history.

What would become the April Brothers operation started in 1866 as the Durell family farm. Edward Hicks Durell bought 90 acres of land in what is now Belleplain State Forest, and he would eventually own 4,000 acres, 300 of it used to grow cranberries.

That was during a rush to plant the fruit following the bog iron industry’s collapse and when cultivation of cranberries looked promising. Rough historical estimates are that the state had 13,000 acres in cranberry production before 1900, what would have been New Jersey’s peak.

In the early 20th century, the industry started struggling. Some of the hastily assembled bogs were poorly managed, there was limited demand for the tart product and a disease named false blossom ravaged crops.

The insect that spread the disease, the blunt-nosed leafhopper, was called “The Jersey Devil” itself.

That was enough to make many farmers leave the business or turn to other crops, like blueberries. The land owned by Hamilton Township’s Atlantic Blueberry Company, the largest blueberry company in New Jersey, used to be all bogs owned by the Atlantic Cranberry Company.

Makepeace Lake, also in Hamilton Township, is another remnant of the industry in Atlantic County. It was formed by damming and flooding the bogs left behind by the Makepeace family. The A.D. Makepeace company still operates in Massachusetts and is one of the world’s largest cranberry growers.

Another operation that opted to sell its land to the state was the Meisle cranberry bog, in Dennis Township, which the state purchased as part of Belleplain State Forest in 1928. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program created for unemployed men during the Great Depression, would dig out the bogs and turn it into a lake.

Tom Champion, Paul’s brother, recently stood by that lake, which was named Lake Nummy after a Lenni-Lenape chief from Cape May County. Champion, 81, is a local historian who often gives talks at the state forest.

He said he did not know much about the Meisle farm’s history, but in the interpretive center at the park he pointed out a stencil used to mark boxes to ship the berries. It reads “Woodbine Bog Cranberries.”

Champion also has an old pine box from the Durell company in his collection of local artifacts.

When asked how old it is, he simply says, “Older than you.”

The Durells sold their farm to the April Brothers company in 1945. The company later sold a portion of it to the state to be preserved by the Green Acres program, and some of it is now used to grow trees and shrubs at Tuckahoe Nurseries on Belleplain Road.

The industry has had several ups and downs since. The invention of the water harvesting method in the 1960s, in which the bogs are flooded and machines shake the berries off their vines so they float to the surface for collection, revolutionized the industry and proved dramatically more efficient.

But farmers experienced another setback in the late 1990s when prices plunged because of oversupply. The price per barrel went from $62 in 1996 to $10 in 1999, and nearly 1,000 acres went out of production shortly afterward.

With expansion of cranberry products into new markets such as Europe and Latin America, there is good news for the future of the fruit. New hybrid varieties of cranberries also grow faster and resist disease better.

Researchers recently received funding to study heat stress on berries using infrared cameras, which is important here because southern New Jersey is the southernmost area of the continent where cranberries are grown.

But there are also challenges. With tighter restrictions on the pesticides farmers can use, the blunt-nosed leafhopper is starting to make a return.

“Farmers are starting to see this disease, which had been gone for 100 years, start to reemerge,” said Nick Vorsa, director of the Rutgers University Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research.

Not much else is the same as it was a century ago in the cranberry industry. In northern Cape May County, the bogs are overgrown and invisible under foliage, the factories long turned to rubble — little evidence of what was once a booming business.

Contact Lee Procida:

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