First published in The Record, Nov. 20, 2018
In New Jersey’s idyllic cranberry bogs, a battle for control
Cranberries are lazy, persnickety and wild.
Also, cranberries dislike you. There’s a reason why a raw cranberry tastes like a cherry dunked in napalm: rare among plants, the cranberry is simultaneously edible and repulsive.
Cranberry jelly may be a staple Thanksgiving snack. But raw cranberries are so tart, most humans can't stomach more than three in a row.
“What’s most surprising about cranberries is that we’re eating a fruit that evolved not to be eaten,” said Nicholi Vorsa, director of the Marucci Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension Center at Rutgers University. “There’s no reason why we should eat this fruit that tastes godawful!”
The distaste is mutual. The last thing a cranberry plant wants to do is produce maroon-colored jelly shaped like the ribbed insides of an aluminum can, to say nothing of newer products like Ocean Spray Cranberry Peach Bellini Mocktails, for people, or Zesty Paws Cranberry Bladder Bites with Cran-Max®, for dogs.
When cranberries get their druthers, in fact, they simply run away. If a farmer plants an apple orchard, Vorsa said, she can come back 50 years later and find the same apple tree standing in the same spot.
“A cranberry bog might be gone in 50 years. It might have moved 50 yards down the road,” Vorsa said. “There are no other crops that are as difficult to control as cranberries.”
Hell. Cranberries don’t even grow in water. Contrary to the image made famous by Ocean Spray commercials, popular on television this time of year, cranberries grow in conditions akin to deserts.
Also from TV ads, one might imagine cranberry growers to be simpleton goofballs, always horsing around in rubber waders up to their nipples.
This, too, is mistaken.
Bill Haines Jr. and his family have spent five generations attempting to tame the wild cranberry, and they’ve done a better job than just about anybody. The official name of the Haines farm is Pine Island Cranberry Company, Inc., located near Chatsworth, Burlington County. Some people call the farm Hog Wallow, because it was founded in 1890 at a low spot in the road where wild pigs liked to cool off.
Haines calls it “The Place.” It encompasses 1,440 acres of bogs and nearly 13,000 acres of forest, swamp, reservoirs, canals, dams, big houses, little houses, pumphouses, a sand mine and a private airstrip, carved from the pines and paved in sand.
“You can call me a lot of things, but you can’t call me easygoing or complacent,” said Haines, 65. “This place has been run by unreasonable people for 128 years. And it isn’t about to change.”
His holdings make Haines the largest cranberry producer in New Jersey, and among the largest landowners in the state. The Oswego River and the west branch of the Wading River run through his farm, and Haines controls both almost entirely.
He controls whether his cranberry vines drink or drown. He controls when they lie dormant. He controls how much food they eat. He struggles with all his considerable might to control whether they reproduce, and how, and with whom.
Haines’s power peaks during the fall harvest, when each bog is flooded for about a day. (The practice was popularized in 1961 by his father, Bill Haines Sr.) That’s when workers knock berries from the vines, creating the only picture of a cranberry bog most people ever know, with azure ponds covered in scarlet, bobbing fruit.
Every other day of the year is a struggle between man and nature. On the side of man is Bill Haines, a control freak of the highest rank.
At six feet four inches Haines is a lanky man, squarely built, with blue eyes gone crinkly from squinting in the sun. When things are going well this large man speaks in a voice that is disarming and soft. He crosses and re-crosses his legs, flings his hands around loosely, so comfortable in his power he seems to forget all about it.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” Haines said of building the first overhead irrigation system in a New Jersey cranberry bog, in 1975. “And every day about 10 o’clock I got hell from my dad for not getting it done.”
When things don’t go well, another side of Haines jumps out. On a sunny day ten years ago, I rode shotgun in his Ford pickup as Haines gave me a tour. Haines was talking amiably about soil when he stopped the truck hard, swung open the door, and charged a group of workers.
“What’s the story of this truck that’s been sitting here for two days?” Haines said, jerking his thumb toward a dump truck stalled by a broken pump. “If they get the pump fixed in November it won’t do me any damn good! We need that truck moving! Now!”
Of course, the primary obstacle in Hog Wallow is neither the trucks nor the help. It is the riotous, recalcitrant cranberry, always finding ways to squirrel free.
Let's get ornery
Cranberries are the Brillo Pads of fruit. High in benzoic acid, they scour the bellies of mammals like steel wool against a saucepan. Native Americans swallowed the berries to prevent gut infections, and they applied mashed-up cranberry paste to open wounds for the same reason. These tricks were borrowed by early white settlers, who also ate the berries to ward off scurvy.
Scant medical benefits aside, a cranberry's highest achievement is to be a pain in the butt. Cranberries are peripatetic floozies; they will reproduce with just about anybody. Each berry is heterozygous, which means if a single berry drops to the ground, its seeds might sprout any of a thousand different varieties. Bees also pollinate cranberry flowers, creating additional combinations.
“Cranberries are an ornery bunch,” Susan Playfair wrote in America’s Founding Fruit, a book about cranberries. Playfair's great-grandfather owned a cranberry bog in Massachusetts.
But the cranberry’s favorite way to reproduce is to forget this berry business entirely. It prefers to cover the land with vines, which farmers call “runners.” These runners search for dry, sandy soil with just enough water underneath for their roots to sip.
“Cranberries live on this edge between wet and dry environments,” Vorsa said.
If it finds perfect conditions, a cranberry plant stays put. If not, it keeps running.
“From an evolutionary standpoint, a cranberry has evolved one of the strongest abilities among all plant species” to run away, Vorsa said. “Runners will just go back and forth and colonize the appropriate water level.”
Here lies the heart of Bill Haines’ struggle. He needs fruit. But growing fruit requires hard work, something cranberry vines disdain.
“Sexual reproduction is good for the species, but it’s a stress on the individual plant,” Vorsa said. “So you have what I call rogue cranberry plants that come in and out-muscle the variety you want.”
Cranberries remain strong-willed because humans are new to breaking them. Corn was domesticated in Mexico about 8,700 years ago. Today, most commercial corn varieties die without human oversight.
When a cranberry plant is left to its own devices, meanwhile, it goes kind of nuts. The tart red berries weren’t hemmed into commercial bogs until 1816.
“Cranberries are unique because they’ve been domesticated only within the last couple years,” Vorsa said.
Even today, nearly every cranberry we consume is essentially wild, a genetic individual.
“Cranberries are real finicky,” Haines said.
Only now are farmers beginning to plant new varieties bred by Vorsa and his colleagues at the Rutgers extension center specifically to produce more fruit. One is the Mullica Queen, named for the river that starts just south of Haines’s bogs. Another is Haines, named for Bill Haines’ dad.
“We’ve got ten acres of Haines,” Haines said. “We’re pretty proud of that.”
Early Black, an old variety, typically produces 200 barrels of berries per acre, Haines said. New varieties more than double that.
“We plan on getting 300,000 barrels” of cranberries this year, he said. “I think someday we could be producing half a million.”
Every old bog that Haines replants with new varieties will boost his total production. Eventually, though, he will lose every bog to the old, barren, fast-running invaders.
They come on the wind. They sprout from seeds that drop from vines to the ground. They float from bog to bog in the harvest flood. They hitch rides in the fur of bees.
If Haines manages his farm well, he figures it will take 50 years for the invaders to win. If he screws up, his berry-producing bogs could be lost to vines in a few seasons.
“A bog can go backwards and revert to the wild if you don’t pay attention,” he said.
UNSTOPPABLE FORCE, MEET YELLOW BULLDOZER
On a cloudy day this fall, I climbed into Haines' Ford pickup for another tour. Haines’ mood was bright. Four of his six children and one son-in-law have assumed responsibilities at the farm since my last visit, but Haines remains the ultimate authority.
He is trying to let the young people run things.
“It’s not good for them for me to hover around,” he said. “It can make them nervous.”
Haines is respected, sometimes feared, because no one knows this land like he does. In his youth he worked the farm with his hands, while in his mind he daydreamed of moving water. Haines realized he could open the floodgates at Old Reservoir, letting water from the Oswego River fall south into Old 22 Acre, into Shanty and Big Meadow and Portugee. From those bogs he could shunt the river east through a bog called Dollar and a Half.
"My dad’s manager didn't like the bog, and said he wouldn't give a dollar and a half for it," Haines said. "We have another one called Thousand Dollar. Apparently he liked that."
From Dollar and a Half, Haines can switch on his pumps and lift the water uphill to Jonathan Wright Reservoir. There he can open the gates and shake it west through Five Dollar bog to Turf Reservoir, where it follows the drop of the land into a bog called Nadine.
If he chooses, Bill Haines can run the Oswego River sideways.
“We can use water several times,” he said. “It’s a complicated water system. But you can make it do what you want it to do if you understand it.”
It was harvest time. Haines parked the Ford near a flooded bog. A worker drove a John Deere tractor through the bog, knocking berries from vines.
On each pass, however, the tractor’s path was blocked by another worker spreading sand across the dam with a yellow bulldozer.
Harvest comes to this bog one day a year. Rebuilding the earthen dams can be done anytime. Yet here sat this lumbering earth mover, in the way, threatening to throw the entire harvest off schedule.
“I’m not quite sure why they chose to do that today,” Haines said quietly.
Haines fell silent. His pale cheeks reddened with anger. I asked whether sometimes he finds it difficult to restrain his power, to defer to his managers, to quell his urge to start screaming at his workers to move that damn bulldozer out of the way, now, damn it, now.
Bill Haines said nothing. He clenched his jaw and nodded yes.