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The Fruits of Labor

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Date: October 20, 1997

Location: TABERNACLE

Title: The Fruits of Labor

Author: By Myra A. Thomas

Subject: As the harvesting season nears an end, New Jersey cranberry farmers are looking for ways to increase supply for a product in growing demand.

Section:



As a fall chill settles over New Jersey, thoughts turn to the holiday season and traditional foods. Thanksgiving is fast approaching and cranberry sauce will probably make a command appearance on most U.S. tables. New Jersey''s cranberry crop, ranked third in the nation for production of the fruit behind Wisconsin and Massachusetts, will make a major contribution to the holiday favorite.

The state''s cranberry harvesting season is almost over, and estimates for this year''s crop are good. Last year the cranberry industry contributed $25 million to the state''s economy. The Department of Agriculture says that this year''s cranberry harvest will yield about 51 million pounds of fruit--up 9% from last year.

Cranberries aren''t just the seasonal food that they used to be. Juice products containing cranberries were popularized in the early 1970s and they have created a year-round market, turning cranberry farming into a thriving industry. Most of the fruit now goes into juice.

Debbie Lawler, public information officer for the state''s Department of Agriculture, says that about 3,600 acres of bogs were harvested in the state last year, and this year there are about 3,950 acres. About half of the area is centered in the Pinelands in Burlington County, which has acidic soil, natural aquifers and wetlands that provide the ideal growing conditions for the berries. The cranberry industry provides more than 400 jobs for Burlington County, and is one of the top employers. Just a few growers are located in Atlantic and Ocean counties.

Many of the state''s cranberry farms have been passed down from generation to generation. Sam Moore Jr. and his wife Neva own the 650-acre Moore''s Meadow Cranberry & Blueberry Farm in Tabernacle, which has 70 acres of cranberries and 32 acres of blueberries. The rest of the land is devoted to wetlands, watersheds and wooded areas found on most cranberry farms. The couple''s sons, David and Sam Moore III, work alongside their parents and make the sixth generation of Moores to cultivate cranberries there. Six other employees help out throughout the season.

Despite the troubles facing many other farmers, cranberry growers are now enjoying good times. In fact, the growers cannot keep up with demand. Says Sam Moore Jr.: "Simply put, the cranberry business is very good." He says that his crop is up from last year, and should average about 400,000 pounds.

The Moores'' farm, like many others, has an underground irrigation system to water the young plants and then later flood the bogs for harvesting, which begins in mid-September when the berries turn a deep red. It takes the Moores about three to four weeks to collect their crop. The fruit is harvested by a machine that separates the berries from the vine. When the cranberries rise to the top of the water, workers walk into the bog and push the fruit with wooden boards to the bog''s edge. From there the berries are pushed into a mini-elevator that moves them up and out of the water and into a truck.

Sam Moore Jr. says the cranberry industry picked up strongly in the early 1970s, when Ocean Spray increased its promotion of cranberry-juice products. Neva Moore says: "About 85% of the state''s cranberries go to Ocean Spray. There are about 47 growers in the state, and about 37 of them are in the Ocean Spray growers'' coop."

Tim Rued, operations manager for Ocean Spray''s Chatsworth Receiving Station, says, "We handle about 49 to 50 million pounds of cranberries through the station in a season." The station weighs the fruit, and tests it for quality. The fruit is first cleaned and frozen, and then sent to a nearby Bordentown pressing and bottling plant, which makes the juice products. Several plants around the country handle the processing of berries from area cooperatives.

Sam Moore is optimistic about his future relationship with the cooperative. "I feel when things get tight, we''ll still be where we are today," he says. Ocean Spray is currently paying local growers $60 for 100 pounds of cranberries. But his optimism doesn''t extend to the cranberry market as a whole. U.S. cranberry growers, like Moore, fear that the price they receive on the fruit will soon decrease as the market becomes flooded with more fruit from Canadian cranberry growers.

Other farmers, like Stephen Lee III, are worried about the current need for more supply to meet the increased demand. He owns a 1,600-acre farm, with 135 acres of cranberries, in Chatsworth. "We have to expand and improve our techniques to make our existing bogs more productive," Lee says. He is acting as industry spokesperson in its efforts to get the state to allow more use of wetlands as cranberry bogs.

The Department of Environmental Protection is looking at whether or not to allow each grower access to 10 additional acres of wetlands in the Pinelands area, for a total increase of up to 300 acres. The DEP has considered the proposal since 1995, and it is currently awaiting a recommendation on the matter from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

While some environmental groups oppose the expansion, the state''s Pinelands Commission appears to be in favor of the move. Says Bill Harrison, assistant director of the Pinelands Commission: "Cranberry production can be consistent with our goals." Currently berry production is allowed anywhere in the Pinelands.

While they are harvesting, the growers have had other things on their minds besides the fight for land. Says Lee: "We''re going to actively pursue the issue once the harvest is over."

Harvesting takes precedence over everything, even the 14-year-old Chatsworth Cranberry Festival. The festival usually occurs in mid-October, at a time when farmers are often waist-deep in bog water.

The festival has been recently touched by scandal. Mary-Ann Thompson, who was organizer until last year, and the previous trustees of the nonprofit Chatsworth Club II, which collected funds for the festival, are under investigation by the state''s Division of Consumer Affairs. The agency has sued the club and its original trustees, alleging that the money raised from the festival from 1991 to 1996 did not go, as promised, to renovating the historic White Horse Inn in Chatsworth, but was used by Thompson for personal items.

With the festival in danger of being canceled, Lynn Giamalis, an animal control officer for Woodland, stepped in and organized this year''s cranberry event. The American Cranberry Association, the local trade group for cranberry growers, will participate for the first time in the local celebration.

This year''s festival, scheduled for October 18 and 19, once again featured crafters and food vendors, plus a miniature cranberry bog display from the American Cranberry Association. Neva Moore admits, though, that most growers will not be at the festival. They''ll be out in the bogs.

E-mail to mthomas@bnjol.com



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