WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP - While incessant rain and overall cool temperatures spread gloom along the shore this summer, the unusual weather has put smiles on the faces of the region's cranberry farmers.
Bill Haines wore one Thursday as he drove his pickup along the sides of the bogs his family has owned since 1881, watching his crew collect what may be a record-breaking crop this year.
Two weeks into this year's harvest, production at the Pine Island Cranberry Co. is running well ahead of the best numbers it has ever seen, Haines said.
Haines and others attribute that partially to Mother Nature, which usually puts New Jersey's more than 3,000 acres of cranberry farms at a disadvantage to states such as Wisconsin and Massachusetts that benefit from their higher latitude and cooler environments.
But this year the state is projecting an increase in cranberry production, while those more northern states are likely to see a decline, on the heels of a record-shattering year for the industry.
"If you look at it as a total, it's hard to imagine a crop as big as last year's crop," said Paul Stajduhar, vice president of corporate strategy for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., the grower-owned cooperative of which nearly all the state's cranberry farmers are members.
Worldwide, farmers produced 9.6 million barrels of cranberries in 2008, a million more than the previous record, thanks to a confluence of factors such as good weather and improved techniques.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects New Jersey to produce about 540,000 barrels this year, or 54 million pounds of cranberries, which is about 5 percent more than last year.
Haines' farm, with 1,279 acres of bogs, will account for more than half of that total. In 2007, it produced 293,600, its own record, and right now is about 11,000 barrels ahead of the point it was at this time that year.
As with the rest of the cranberry farms in New Jersey, which are mostly located in Burlington County and in Ocean County, the Haines farm has had to increase the production of the bogs it has used for decades, since strict environmental regulations forbid the creation of new bogs in the sensitive wetlands surrounding the farms.
That has meant increased attention to detail, a better understanding of how to maintain and grow the fruit and finding higher-yielding varieties.
"We're particularly dedicated and disciplined about it," Haines said.
Every year, Haines modifies his nutrition programs. They now fertilize in smaller doses but more often than in the past, and they care for the plants based on their observed needs rather than a rigid calendar. The extra care has all but eliminated the need for insecticide in some cases.
"I think some of the very best growers we have are in New Jersey," Stajduhar said, with the Haines farm always among the top three highest-producing for Ocean Spray. "There are some very, very nice-sized farms that are immaculately managed."
The next big boost in the industry will be seen in new varieties of berries patented by Rutgers University, which are exclusive to Ocean Spray growers since the company funded much of the research.
Those varieties - named Demoranville, Crimson Queen and Mullica Queen - have been planted at several area farms and are now in their third and fourth years of production.
It normally takes about five or six years for plots to start reaching their optimum capacity, but already the new varieties are producing well for farmers.
The U.S. average yield per acre is 199 barrels. Some of the plots planted with the new varieties have yielded as high as 628 barrels per acre.
"I would think that's approaching some kind of record," said Nicholi Vorsa, director of the Rutgers University Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research, just south on Route 563 from Haines's farm.
Vorsa was the lead researcher and developer of the new breeds, and he has been following their growth in New Jersey as well as in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and other states where they have been introduced and displayed encouraging results.
Vorsa cultivated the varieties in southern New Jersey because it usually sees sweltering, humid summers, so whatever berries he bred that thrived here likely would thrive anywhere.
This summer, however, the berries got a reprieve from the typically harsh conditions, and he agreed that it likely would contribute to a better-than-usual yield.
The new berries are less biennial in their growing habits, too, Vorsa said, meaning they can produce stably from year to year rather than having a high yield one year and producing less the following year as most varieties do - another reason for the industry-wide drop in overall production from last year.
Vorsa also is trying out another new variety at the Joseph J. White Inc. farm in Pemberton Township, Burlington County, this one being aimed at the fresh-fruit market rather than as juice, sauce or sweetened dried cranberries.
For that reason, it will have slightly different characteristics than the other varieties, trading high yield for better aesthetics.
"It has to look good in the store," said the farm's owner, Joseph Darlington, who is one of the sole producers of the berries in the region.
In the future, farmers will look to continue boosting production as the market for cranberries expands globally.
Ocean Spray just about met production last year even with the record harvest, with markets growing in Canada, Australia and England. In the latter, cranberry juice is now the highest selling un-refrigerated fruit juice, as it also is in the U.S.
Other international markets include Japan, Taiwan and New Zealand. Jamaica also now consumes more cranberries per capita than any other country.
"Ocean Spray has done a remarkable job of growing demand," Haines said, which means more money for the 693 growers that contribute to the cooperative, 28 of which are in New Jersey.
For the Haines farm, that also has meant expanding its processing facility and adding another crew to the harvest team, in expectations of more good growing seasons to come.
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