New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher visited the Cutts Brothers Cranberry Farm Monday to witness how the family-owned farm harvests its cranberries each October across 29 bogs that cover almost 130 acres.
BASS RIVER — Deep, deep in the Pine Barrens near the southern-most tip of Burlington County, where the closest house is over a mile away, where visitors are warned to fill their cars with gas before making the drive from civilization and are told to print out directions because cell service is virtually non-existent, are perhaps some of the most profitable parcels of land in the Garden State.
Bill Cutts and his brother Ernest are the third generation of the Cutts family to farm the sandy soil here. The Cutts family first started farming in Tabernacle in 1906, and since the 1930s have farmed nearly 130 acres of sandy Pine Barrens soil off Route 679 in Bass River.
“My family’s been doing this for a long time,” Cutts said at the entrance gate to the Cutts Brothers Farm.
Cutts was speaking to a group of officials who trekked across South Jersey to Bass River because of what the Cutts family has produced for over a century — cranberries.
Each October, farmers at each of New Jersey’s 25 cranberry farming operations begin a month-long harvest that will result in around 65% of North America’s cranberry harvest.
Last year, over 51 million pounds of cranberries were harvested across 3,100 acres of land in Burlington, Ocean and Atlantic counties for a value of nearly $16 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The 2018 harvest made New Jersey the No. 3 producer of the tart fruit in the nation.
New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher along with other state officials visited the Cutts Brothers Cranberry Farm on Monday to witness first-hand how the family-owned farm harvests its cranberries each October across 29 bogs that cover almost 130 acres.
“It’s an eye-opening process,” Fisher said wearing fishing waders. Moments prior, the secretary of agriculture was waist-deep in a cranberry bog.
“It’s a great enterprise, and its big business in New Jersey,” Fisher said. “Most of New Jersey’s (cranberrry farms) are almost exclusively family farms. These are families that have been farming this land for centuries and one thing that people should know is that they do with sustainable and environmentally sound practices … they recognize their stewardship.”
While cranberry harvests usually last through early November, they are the result of a year-long process that begins in the winter, when the bogs are flooded to protect the vines (yes, cranberries grow on vines, not in water or on bushes) from cold weather.
In April, farmers will drain the water and cranberries will begin to grow along vines. In the fall, farmers will begin to flood the bogs again and begin to harvest the cranberries in October.
Nearly all of the cranberries harvested in New Jersey are sold to the Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., a grower-owned cooperative. Their first stop after harvest is the Ocean Spray Receiving Station in the Chatsworth section of Woodland, where 20,000 barrels, or 2 million pounds of cranberries, are packaged each harvest season, according to station manager Bob Garatino.
Garantino said that each October the staff at the station more than doubles from 18 to 38. At the station, cranberries are tested for firmness and quality, and then either sent to be frozen at the facility or to another processing plant in Middleborough, Massachusetts.
In the off-season, Garantino said workers at the plant spend their days sorting and repairing tens of thousands of wooden bins used to ship the cranberries.
Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, D-11 of Neptune, called Monday’s tour of the Cutts Brothers Farm and the Ocean Spray receiving station one of the most informational he’s been on.
“This was the most extensive and where I learned the most about the cranberry crop,” said Houghtaling, who is the first assemblyman from Monmouth County to chair the assembly’s Agriculture and Natural Resources committee.
The Cutts’ farm grows traditional varieties such as the Early Blacks and Stevens as well as some newer varieties developed by Rutgers University, something Houghtaling praised.
“Rutgers is helping (the farmers) being able to utilize a greater yield per acre … the smaller their farms can be, and the greater their yield can be … I think that’s what Rutgers is trying to help their farmers do.”
According to Cutts, farming cranberries is not a cheap endeavor. Cutts said that over time cranberries become not true to their variety and become less productive and the bogs need to be renovated. To renovate a bog, Cutts said, costs anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 an acre.
And while the Cutts family has farmed the 130 acres since the 1930s, it no longer owns the property. He said that as his father and three brothers were getting older, they were “asset rich and cash poor” and sold the property. Eventually, Cutts said, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection bought the property and made it a part of the Wharton State Forest.
Now, Cutts Family Farms operates under a long-term lease with the state.
“Which is the only way you can really make it work. Cranberries require a lot of investment,” Cutts said.
Cranberries also aren’t cheap for the towns in which they are grown.
Bass River Commissioner Lou Bourguignon said that one drawback from cranberry farmers leasing land from the state is that township doesn’t get to raise any tax revenue that could go toward improving services that the township provides for that very same land.
“The problem I got for my little town is these people (New Jersey) own 60% of our land now, and they don’t compensate anything,” Bourguignon said. “They get the revenue and contribute nothing to the town.”
Bourguignon said that the township board of commissioners has had to consistently raise local taxes, and still has 25-year-old fire engines that are in need of an upgrade.
“(The state) doesn’t look out for the little towns, even though everybody uses this land whether it’s for harvesting or hunting, fishing or camping,” Bourguignon, a lifelong Bass River resident, said. “I hate to be a thorn on a nice day like this, but the reality is the state has to come up with something for the little communities.”
Bourguignon said that the township has been in contact with local representatives to work on the issue, including Houghtaling.
“What he is saying makes perfect sense,” Houghtaling said. “They still have to take care of what goes on out here, and I mean they have bills they have to pay as well.”
Houghtaling said that programs like the Farmland Preservation were never meant to hurt the taxpayers, and that funds can be reallocated to lessen the burden on towns like Bass River.
“We have to make sure that what we’re doing is not going to hurt anybody,” Houghtaling said.