Growing cranberries is a family business in New Jersey, with a lifestyle that involves intense work during a growing season, nurturing plants and flooding fields for gathering fruit. Nobody knows this better than Bill Cutts, one of three generations of family members who are now reaping the harvest deep in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.
The Cutts family has been farming blueberries and cranberries in the Pine Barrens since 1906, also selling produce and chickens locally during the Great Depression. The farm has 29 cranberry bogs over its 128 acres, primarily growing traditional varieties such as the Early Blacks and Stevens as well as some newer cranberry varieties developed by Rutgers University.
Cutts Brothers Cranberry Farm is one of 25 cranberry operations in New Jersey. About 95 percent of all cranberries harvested in New Jersey are sold to the Ocean Spray Cooperative.
Years ago, workers would live in labor camps — small homes buried in the woods — while they did the difficult work of harvesting the berries from the low plants on which they grow. Berries would either be picked by hand or by workers using wooden “scoops” that separated berries from the plants to which they were attached. (Contrary to the popular notion, cranberries and blueberries do not grow on vines.)
Today, the Cutts live in those same homes from August to October when the plants flower and then grow fruit. Their farms area in New Jersey’s protected Wharton-Bass River State Forest.
Cranberries were once harvested by hand, often by migrant or temporary workers and their children from Philadelphia, said Bill Cutts.
“Cranberry farming is a long and vibrant business in New Jersey,” New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher said during a recent visit to the Cutts farm. “We have phenomenal farmers who produce great crops, and the industry that surrounds them provides many jobs in the state.”
In 1965, the Cutts family started growing blueberries in South Carolina, leaving some blueberry fields to be reclaimed by the forest.
“If we walk away, they [the farms and bogs] will revert to natural wetlands,” said Cutts. “We use a lot of water, but we do not consume water. We just ‘borrow’ it to fill the bogs. The water here is pure, clear water which may appear brown because it is cedar water.”
New Jersey farmers are asset-rich, but cash-poor, Cutts said.
“Cranberries require a lot of investment,” he said. “Renovating a cranberry farm to a cranberry bog is an arduous process, costing $20,000 to $30,000 per acre.”
Formerly harvested from low-lying plants, cranberries are now harvested using a “gravity flow system” that works somewhat like locks on a canal. These flood the fields, raising the ripe fruit to the top where it is gathered into containment systems and fed through several filters before being brought to the nearby Ocean Spray receiving station in Chatsworth.
Cranberries are primarily grown in North American wetlands. Fifty thousand acres of cranberries are grown in the United States, according to Cutts, as compared to the 76 million acres of soybeans, for example.
“The cranberry industry is a small industry. Everyone you see here is family,” he said. The top five cranberry-producing states are Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.
Why are they called cranberries? “The flowers on the plants look like white cranes, so they were originally called crane-berries. The name morphed over time,“ said Cutts.
It may be a small industry, but it is an environmentally friendly one. Specialty planting and harvesting equipment is built by local farmers. Machines used in the field are fueled by food-grade vegetable oil to keep the water, in which the berries are floated, pure.
The final harvesting process involves channeling water into a field and using a custom-designed harvester to remove cranberries from the plants and an oil-containment barrier (cran-boom) to gather the berries into a smaller area. They are then pushed by hand into a feeder, sent through a sorter, loaded on a truck and then sent to the Ocean Spray plant.
At the plant, they are sorted again (sometimes freeing some frogs that have accidentally been harvested, too) and either packed in 1,300-pound containers or frozen to be used in cranberry juice. All berries grown in New Jersey get transferred to Massachusetts or Wisconsin, where they are made into a variety of Ocean Spray products.
District 11 Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, chair of the New Jersey Legislature’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, also attended the recent “open bog” event at Cutts Farm.
“This is another day that has made me admire what farmers can do,” he said. “I was in construction and can see both the creativity and hard work that goes into this business.”
Are the cranberries that New Jerseyans buy by the bag for Thanksgiving grown in the Garden State?
“Sorry, but no,” said Cutts. “The ones in the bags are fresh fruit cranberries, grown on Cape Cod. Most New Jersey cranberries are very large and are suitable for use as juice berries or Craisins.”
According to fourth-generation cranberry farmer Zeke Cutts, “My favorites are Cranberrry-Tangerine Juice or Craisin Granola. They are the best.”
Read more on NJ Flavor:
Got a story you'd like to see on NJ Flavor? Email Jackie Lieberman at email@example.com.