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New Jersey’s cranberry kings hope surpluses and tariffs don’t bog them down

Cranberries are the fourth most valuable crop in New Jersey, valued at $21.2 million.

Ed Vincent pushes berries at a cranberry harvest in Chatsworth, New Jersey Wednesday October 17, 2018.
Ed Vincent pushes berries at a cranberry harvest in Chatsworth, New Jersey Wednesday October 17, 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON

CHATSWORTH, N.J. — Buzzards circled in the windy, cloudless blue above Lee Brothers farm Wednesday afternoon, their feathers as dark as the bog water glistening beneath them

In one of those 18 bogs, employee Herb Armstrong sat in the driver's seat of what is essentially a giant egg beater, guided by GPS and fueled by vegetable oil, churning up cedar water and shaking the flooded bushes beneath it. Spiraling, scarlet tendrils unfurled on the water's surface in its wake, bobbing cranberries by the thousands all ready for harvest, deep in the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

"The redder they are, the better they taste," said Armstrong, who's worked these Burlington County bogs for three decades.

New Jersey's $21.2 million cranberry industry is not its largest or most valuable crop — that title belongs to blueberries — but the bitter,  red harvest is certainly the Garden State's most unique and colorful. As this year's cranberry harvest kicks into high gear on thousands of acres, local growers like the Lees have to contend with a saturated market in the United States, the public's fickle tastes for the latest fruit concoctions, and also Chinese tariffs that aimed at punishing House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose native Wisconsin is America's top producer.

"I can't control what the government does, and I can't control what China does," Stephen V. Lee IV, 50, said in his pickup truck. "The thing I have to focus on is taking the two years' worth of work my family has put into these bogs and getting this crop off. We started this on Sunday, and we'll go now until we're finished. We've got 130 acres to get done in 2½ weeks."

Still, Chinese journalists have hosted live podcasts from Lee bogs to extol the virtues of the cranberry, a fruit native to North America.

"We make these investments in new markets and all of a sudden, you're hit with a 40 percent tariff," said Lee's father, Stephen V. Lee III, 72, whose great-great-grandfather built the first bogs there in 1868. "We don't yet know what the effect will be."

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, fresh cranberries sold for $57.60 per 100-pound barrel last year, while processed cranberries sold for $29.10. In the U.S., most cranberry sales are from processed goods, like juice, and that number has been steadily increasing for a decade, according to the Cranberry Marketing Committee. Cranberries are a Thanksgiving staple, and of 400 million pounds consumed per year here, the AMRC estimates 20 percent are eaten on turkey day.

The Lees take every last cranberry to an Ocean Spray receiving station just a few miles up the road. Ocean Spray operates as a grower-owned co-op and was founded by three growers in the 1930s, including Elizabeth Lee, a New Jersey farmer from New Egypt not related to the Chatsworth Lees. Ocean Spray's farmers hail from Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and several Canadian provinces.

Chile is the only other country in the world that has grown cranberries.

"In New Jersey in particular, most of the cranberry crop comes to Ocean Spray," company spokesperson Kellyanne Dignan said.

The USDA has recommended restrictions on cranberry crops because supply has been greater than demand as farmers get higher yields from new variants and harvest methods become more efficient.

"It's not unusual for the cranberry market to have surpluses," said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jerseys Farm Bureau. "They usually foresee it and adjust."

There are competitors too, fruits no one ever heard of a decade ago, like pomegranate and acai, trying to muscle cranberry juices from grocery store shelves.

"I don't think they have the kind of staying power or the benefits that cranberries have," Dignan said. "Their benefits go back to the Native Americans."

Every member of the Lee family eventually learns how to pronounce and spell proanthocyanidins. They're what makes cranberries a go-to treatment for urinary tract infections, and Dignan said scientists are still studying what they're capable of.

"Basically, they are helping by not letting infections stick," she said.

Like all farmers, the Lees are subject to the whims of weather. Cranberries love that crisp, autumn air.

"That's when they get ripe," the elder Lee said. "They like cool nights and sunlight, and we haven't had much of either one lately."

On this blustery day, the harvest had kicked into high gear. Water from the west branch of the Wading River had been diverted through canals to flood the bogs. Armstrong piloted the "harvester," the half-boat/half-tractor the Lees built to shake the bushes underwater. In adjoining bogs, the floating berries had been corralled with the same type of containment booms used for cleaning up oil spills.

"We prefer to call it a cran boom," the younger Lee said.

Men in chest-high fishing waders stood in chilly water up to their thighs, their hands resting gently on long, flat pieces of cedar. One by one, each walked toward a floating pump that created a cranberry whirlpool, sucking the berries into a tube and spitting them out into large box trucks that sat on the narrow, sandy roads between the bogs.

"I do this and then I go skiing in Utah," Mark Murphy, 57,  said in the water Wednesday as he guided berries toward the vortex with a plastic rake.

Cranberry harvesters aren't the typical farmhands. Murphy, a retired meteorologist from North Jersey, knocked on the Lees' door several years ago, enamored by the work.

"This looks pretty cool. Can I help?" he asked.

The Lees have had help from numerous grandchildren too, along with police officers, and retirees like Murphy.

"I just like to be outdoors," said David DiPaolo, 53.

DiPaolo is Lee Brothers' unofficial "wildlife expert," the man to call should a snapping turtle pop its head out of the mass of floating red. He said he's seen the occasional fish, crayfish, lots of frogs, and even more spiders, which always seem to be looking for something high and dry to climb up in the flooded bogs.

"Big ones," he said. "Spiders were so thick Monday I had one hanging from the brim of my hat."

Any remaining spiders, along with stems, rotten berries, and the smallest detritus, are sifted and sorted away up the street at the Ocean Spray receiving plant. Cranberries cascade from flatbed trucks into holding tanks, where they flow by the millions into the plant to be sorted for size along conveyor lines.

A small sample from each delivery is taken upstairs to what looks like a chemistry lab, and undergoes a mind-boggling array of tests. Some check how firm the berry is. A spectrophotometer measures color. In the lobby, bottles of cranberry juice cocktail, along with blends of blueberry and raspberry, greet visitors.

DiPaolo, back at the Lee bogs, said he prefers his cranberry blend with a bit more bite.

"Vodka, sure, but Everclear is better," he said.

DiPaolo, like every other employee and every Lee, pops cranberries into his mouth all day. Murphy said you can't enter a bog without tasting one. Stephen V. Lee III says he doesn't love the white ones. He prefers a variety called "Early Black," the same fruit the Leni-Lenape tribes called "ibimi," or bitter berry.

DiPaolo likes them all.

"Sometimes I don't even realize I'm doing it," he said, "but I'll get full out here on cranberries."