As I lowered my foot into the water, I waited for my inevitable faux pas. Dressed in rubber waders — oversized overalls connected to boots — I had already been waddling around on the ground, so I was pretty sure I’d either trip over the underwater shrubbery and cause a disruptive splash or pounce my foot down and destroy the delicate crops I was immersing myself into.
But instead, a warm calm swept over me. My legs felt like they were wrapped up in a cozy hug, and I found my hands gently skimming the tiny red orbs floating in the water. And that’s when I realized that despite the raucous machinery and farm tools surrounding me, harvesting cranberries in a bog might just be more relaxing than a trip to the spa.
Growing up in a bedroom with a fire-engine red carpet, I’d always found the fiery color angry and abrasive. But standing here, thigh-deep in a pool of perfectly ripened cranberries in the New Jersey Pinelands, I had a new fondness for the hue, finding it soothing and comforting.
And that’s the same kind of unexpected contrast I kept stumbling upon from the moment I arrived at this Ocean Spray cranberry farm in Chatsworth, New Jersey.
Raised on Costco bags of the company’s Craisins, I expected the familiar national brand to be part of a ginormous farming operation that mechanically churned out berries en masse. But instead, I turned off a rather nondescript stretch of road into Lee Brothers Incorporated, a delightful seventh-generation family-run farm, with only half a dozen people in the bog, including a Lee family cousin and son.
I was welcomed by Steve Lee IV (part of the sixth generation), whose family has been harvesting cranberries on this exact land since 1868. He had tried to escape the family business by studying business and hospitality and then going to work for Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort.
But the cranberries called him back. “I missed my first cranberry harvest and learned that this was in my blood,” he said. “I decided it was the last time I wanted to miss a harvest.” So, he started steering his career back to the family farm, and after a decade in the hotel industry, he officially returned to the berry business, and has now been at it for about 20 years. (His eldest son seems to be on the same track — currently in Cincinnati for college, he recently sent his dad a photo of a 64-ounce bottle of cranberry juice with the caption, “I miss home.”)
And it’s small family-run farms like this — 700 of them spread out through Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Quebec, and Chile — that form a cooperative that makes up Ocean Spray, a perfect example of small businesses banding together to service a major consumer space.
Though the Ocean Spray cooperative was formed in 1930, Lee Brothers joined during its third generation in 1952. “We're multigenerational, so we’re concerned about preserving and improving our operation here…[but] the thing I take most pride in is that we're bringing one of the major [staples] to the Thanksgiving table,” Lee said.
Altogether, the Ocean Spray growers/owners, as they’re called, will harvest about 100 billion berries this season, with peak harvest in New Jersey going from the beginning of October through mid-November. In just a few weeks, those will show up on Thanksgiving tables in the form of 59.5 million cans of cranberry sauce, as well as various juices and Craisins products.
But for a turkey garnish we may absentmindedly slather onto our meal, the process from farm to dinner table is intricately complicated. The two-year plant cycle means that while the berries are being harvested for this season, next year’s buds are already there, so there are always dueling schedules to consider.
Add that to the four different cranberry varieties that Lee Brothers grows — Stevens, Crimson Queen, Mullica Queen, Demoranville — each with slightly different timelines, plus the constant adjustments needed to account for weather changes and irrigation needs on the 1,886-acre farm, and it’s a nonstop juggling gig.
“This is not for the faint of heart,” Lee admitted, saying that dealing with regulatory measures and environmental concerns add to the challenges. And even in the midst of a global pandemic, they quickly instilled safety measures — mask requirements and equipment disinfection — and kept on going. “The cranberries don’t read the newspaper,” he joked. “They're still coming, so I’ve got to be ready.”
The process goes way beyond bobbing for cranberries, as the Ocean Spray commercials in the mid-2000s might have suggested. In fact, the berries don’t even grow in water. The pollination starts by renting bees from Pennsylvania in July, so that the fruits can start growing on the dry ground in August. At a quick glance, the dry bogs just look like low-lying shrubs, but a closer look reveals grape-sized fruits. (New Jersey’s cranberries tend to grow large and are used to make SDC, shoptalk for sweet dried cranberries, better known as Craisins.)
By October, the berries on top turn that rich red hue, while the underside of the plants reveals white berries, which are earlier in the ripening process, but used to make white cranberry juice, which tastes milder and sweeter. The bogs are then flooded as part of the wet harvesting method, most common in New Jersey. “The reason we float them is that it’s a much more efficient way to get them off,” Lee explained while cutting open a berry to expose its four hollow air chambers that make them so buoyant.
After strapping on a pair of waders, farm operations lead Paul Fitzpatrick — one of four full-time employees at Lee Brothers Incorporated and a third-generation New Jersey cranberry farmer himself — guided me into the center of a flooded bog, a nine-acre bed of the Stevens variety, which will produce 2,700 barrels at 100 pounds each.
He advised me to take large steps to avoid tripping over the plants underneath and not go too close to the edges, where there’s a ditch around the circumference. But those worries melted away as soon as I was enveloped by berries as far as the eye could see.
It didn’t take long to enter the mesmerizing trance of watching the cranberries disappear underwater into the berry pump, which transports the cranberries from the bog into a machine that cleans and sorts the fruit from the leaves. The berries then get put into the back of a truck, which can hold 30,000 pounds of fruit, while the leaves get sorted into compost for a blueberry farm in the area — just one aspect of the sustainable nature of the process. Another part: The water used to irrigate the bogs actually leaves cleaner than when it comes in, since the process serves as a natural filtration device.
“Our generation is more conscious of the environmental needs just because there’s more awareness now,” Lee said, noting that another device they’ve added monitors soil moisture so that they know exactly when the crops need to be watered, which doesn’t just save water, but also cuts back on diesel fuel. And most importantly, the bogs actually renew the surrounding wetlands at a five-to-one ratio, netting a positive impact on its surroundings.
Before I knew it, I had a rake in my hand, helping to gently push the cranberries toward the pump. And when I mastered that task, I graduated to using large boards to guide the fruit in the right direction.
While harvesting always sounded like hard physical labor, this couldn’t be further from that reality. I quickly understood why Lee hadn’t been able to stay away for even one harvest; there is an intrinsically therapeutic quality to wet harvesting — so much so that all the others working the bog that day actually had other jobs, but took vacation days to join the harvest.
“The thing that's really amazing about our company is that at the end of the day, it's really a family.” Lee said. “And what’s really exciting for us is that people are now understanding the health component. Cranberries are good for you — it’s rich in antioxidants, and cleanses and purifies the body. We’ve known that for a long time — that’s why we look as good as we do!”
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