By Lauren Wanko
This time, every year an explosion of rich, red color takes over Lee Brothers Cranberry Farm in Burlington County. It’s harvest season. Pickers and gathers work around the clock in more than 18 cranberry bogs.
“Most would think it’s a swamping wet area, when actually it isn’t. During the cranberry growing season, it’s actually dry throughout the year,” said Stephen Lee IV, cranberry grower with Lee Brothers Incorporated.
Cranberries grow on vines in bogs. Those bogs are flooded twice a year in the winter to protect the buds on the top of the vines and again in the fall to pick. That’s where this machine called the picker comes into play.
“What it does is it drives into the bog and has these egg beaters that are laid on their side basically and what they do is they rotate and strike the vine and the berries are buoyant so they’ll float to the surface of the water, so now we have this cranberry bog with all these berries on top and we have to get them out somehow,” said Lee.
We brought our camera into the bog — waist deep — surrounded by a sea of cranberries. Tor the next step, the berries are corralled with a containment boom, gathered in one corner and then pumped out of the bog. The water and leaves are then separated. The berries are cleaned, loaded onto a truck and sent to the Ocean Spray receiving center in town. Lee Brothers are members of the Ocean Spray cooperative.
New Jersey is ranked third nationwide in cranberry production, totaling 550,000 barrels in 2012, up over 7 percent from 2011 resulting in nearly $30 million in production value. Cranberry price per barrel also rose in 2012.
“It’s all a matter of demand. Prices are rising because demand is rising. Cranberries are a very desirable crop. New Jersey has a great bounty of cranberries and price is up because demand continues to go up for fresh cranberries,” said Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher.
Lee is a sixth generation cranberry grower here in the heart of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. The business is more than a day job, it’s a passion for this family.
“Heritage and what we do here is very very important to us. This is the time when the family comes together during harvest and it’s very special to all of us,” Lee said.
A special family tradition that helps create thousands of other family traditions every Thanksgiving. Maybe this holiday season, the cranberries will taste even sweeter.