Cranberries bounce


Site Administrator
Sep 17, 2002

It takes a family effort to gather up cranberries
No more bounce test, but harvest time is busy at this N.J. farm.
By Joseph A. Gambardello
Inquirer Staff Writer

SPEEDWELL, N.J. - Cranberries bounce.

They also float. And they are not necessarily crimson.

Stand thigh-deep in water in a flooded bog, surrounded by millions of cranberries, and your eyes will be drawn to small details not seen at a distance.

Most striking are the berries' many shades of color. Some are white, or pink, almost blue or even black. And many are two-toned.

Another eye-catcher is the sight of so many spiders, crickets, and moths scampering across the island formed by corralled berries.

It is harvest time for cranberries in the Pinelands and a working visit to the Lee Brothers farm in Speedwell, Tabernacle Township, last week offered an up-close view of an American original.

The day began at red-sky daybreak in a flooded six-acre bog where berries of the Early Black variety waited to be picked.

At the Lee farm, the picking is done by a machine designed by Abbott Lee. It features three pairs of rotating water-reels mounted to a tractor-like vehicle powered by an engine on a flat-bottom boat. The reels knock the berries off the small-leafed, evergreen vines underwater, allowing them to pop to the surface.

As employee Herb Armstrong drove, Stephen V. Lee IV led the picker, trudging through knee-high water following the line between vines that had been picked and those with fruit.

"It's amazing how much time it saves," Lee said of his uncle's machine.

He explained that water harvesting has been around in New Jersey only since 1960 and that, before then, the berries were dry-harvested in a more time-consuming and labor-intensive process.

Some are still dry-harvested, using a machine that looks like a lawnmower. Those are the fresh berries you will find for sale at market. Wet-harvested berries are destined for juice or cranberry sauce.

The workers this day included some local hires as well as friends and other family members. Among them was Stephen Lee's sister Jennifer, a medical lobbyist from Washington who had taken a week off to help out.

"You get up at 5 o'clock and work until dark. Now, that's a vacation," Jennifer Lee said. "I could be in Washington the whole week. Wearing a suit."

Her brother had been in the hospitality business for 10 years before returning to the family farm.

"It gets in your blood and it never gets out," Stephen Lee said.

After the picker finished its work, the crew rolled out a modified oil-slick containment boom and strung it around the six-acre bog to corral the berries, which the wind had blown to a corner of the bog opposite to where the harvesting machine waited.

Stephen V. Lee III said that not too long ago, workers strung together booms made of cedar planks and pushed them through the bog to round up the berries. The oil-containment boom has made the work more efficient.

Pulled together by the boom, berries formed a six-inch layer on the surface of the bog. Workers wearing chest-high waders climbed into the midst of them and, using the old-style cedar planks, guided the fruit into a suction pump that carried the berries to the harvesting machine.

After washing the berries and separating them from leaves and other chaff dragged into the pump, the machine conveyed the fruit into a yellow container that can hold about 300 barrels, or 3,000 pounds, of berries.

Stephen Lee III noted that, where once it could take a day to harvest 400 barrels of cranberries, that can now be done in less than an hour using all the new equipment.

And the farm - which has been in the family since the 1860s and used to dry, sort and pack the berries on its own - now sends the fruit straight from the bog to an Ocean Spray farmers-cooperative facility on Route 563 in nearby Chatsworth.

Stephen Lee III said ripe cranberries bounce - and before they could be packed, back when his family processed them, they had to bounce into the packing box.

"They got three chances to make a good bounce," he said.

Trucker Bob Franklin, of Chatsworth, hauled a load to Ocean Spray.

"It's a beautiful time of year," he said. "The trees are changing and the berries are on the bogs."

At Ocean Spray, the load was weighed and graded, before being dumped into a river of reddish fruit that would be sent off to become juice or sauce after additional sorting and cleaning.

Back in the bog, the work to push the berries to the intake box was slow and methodical, even meditative. Where other farmwork can take a toll on hands, this demanded steady and strong legwork.

And it became apparent that the three things that make for a good harvest are ripe fruit, good weather and dry waders. But as one harvester with a small leak in his waders discovered, two out of three ain't bad.


I've heard that a good cranberry bounces seven times...any truth to that?


May 29, 2003
My Father and I were poking around Speedwell a couple of weeks ago when we were intercepted by Mr. Lee, a young man in his early to mid thirtees. At first, his presence was of aggressive interest as to our being on his land. He introduced himself and asked what we were doing on the property. He expressed his concern about people taking things from the area and we assured him we were purely interested in the visible and historical aspects opf the former furnace area and that I periodocally stopped by the area to look for the former furnace location. I explained to him that I had seen the old slag piles but wasn't sure of the original place of the furnace. He seemed to lighten up a lot and walked us over to the last remaining stones from the furnace and we began talking about the area. I was amazed to learn that he was a direct descendant of the original Mr. Lee who had owned the property so long ago. I told him that I had read that the iron works on the site had passed hands several times between many important (at least to several) besides his realtives, of which, he seemed puzzled. I was hoping my memory served me well, I'm pretty sure it was. Long story short, we talked for a while about other areas of interest in the surrounding area and his current industry including the cranberry farms and proposed timber cultivation. He said they were getting heat from the environmental groups about both. The family at Speedwell produces the largest amount of cranberries in the state (even country?) and of course, the main player is Ocean-Spray...when I mentioned the name he said "That's Us!". Upon leaving his presence he invited us back to visit and told us to buy Ocean Spray. Overall, he is concerned very much about things being taken from Speedwell..aka cannonball molds, etc, and is a great person unlike you may meet elsewhere in the "industrial" worlds. Reminded me of the kind of people Beck and McPhee would encounter in their travels andmade me an advocate of whatever he has planned for his family's land in and around Speedwell. All these areas we visit were intended for industrial purposes, and now the woods have grown back. I, of course do not want harm to the Pinelands, but since his family has owned the land since furnace times, I think they should at least be allowed to carry on. Shit, it almost seems like history is very much alive here in the pines!


Site Administrator
Sep 17, 2002
If I were him I would not have mentioned that since he seemed to be concerned about theft or possibly vandalism.