Call it a rite of autumn.
For the first time in two years, cranberries are being harvested from the tea-colored waters of the bogs in historic Double Trouble State Park.
A sea of crimson berries bobbed gently in the Gowdy bog this week, close to the vintage cranberry and sorting house that is part of the park's historic village.
And Joseph Brandt was happy to be there.
Brandt and his business partner James Corsey own Southampton-based Honest Berries. The state Department of Environmental Protection granted the company a limited use permit for the 2012 fall cranberry harvest.
Brandt hopes Honest Berries will be around a lot longer than that. He'd like a long-term lease to maintain and harvest the bogs.
"I'd like to keep if for the next 20 years, if they'll let me," he said during a break from pulling delicate, tangled vines from a forest-green water reel.
The reels are used to churn up the water flooding the bogs and knock the berries off the vines.
Brandt and his small crew began working the Double Trouble bogs earlier this week. That calls for flooding them with roughly a foot of water before using the water reel. Cranberries are very buoyant and float to the surface because they have four air pockets.
The men worked nearly until sunset on Tuesday afternoon.The bog waters glowed cobalt in the late afternoon light. The berries were corralled in a yellow boom. Then two of Brandt's men trudged slowly through the water wearing neoprene waders, gently funneling the berries into a conveyor.
But it was tough work.
"There's a lot of dirt," one of the workers said during a break.
Bogs need maintenance
Double Trouble's bogs have lain fallow for two years. There was no harvest in 2011 because no leaseholders stepped up.
And two years of no weeding, fertilization and spraying have taken their toll on the bogs, which are nearly 100 years old. Usually cranberry companies can expect to pull between 150 to 250 barrels of berries from a bog.
But not this year, Brandt said.
"This year, we'll be lucky to get 50 barrels," he said, as he surveyed the Gowdy bog. "It was kind of a last-minute thing. This place will need more upkeep to get it back to where it was."
"They don't expect to have a big harvest this year, because they didn't have time to prepare," said Ray Bukowski, the management improvement specialist who oversees both Double Trouble and Island Beach State Park. "They are going to try and get as much as possible."
Bukowski is glad there will be even a limited harvest this year.
"I know these guys are going to work," he said. "I just want to see it continue. It would be stupid to backslide."
Honest Berries bought the equipment used in this year's harvest from the Jeffrey's Branch Cranberry Company, a previous leaseholder.
"I love it out here in the water working," Brandt said with a smile. "I had a real good job and I left it to come here. I love it here. It's nice. I've been at this for 20 years."
Hopes for a long-term lease
Brandt said Honest Berries hopes to sign a ten-year lease with the state in December. They paid $5,473 for the special use permit to harvest 91.23 acres of bogs from sunrise to sunset.
"They are committed," Bukowski said. "They want to be there. They want the opportunity for a long-term lease."
Double Trouble has a rich cranberry history. It began back in the early 1900s, when Edward Crabbe bought the tract. Crabbe's main business initially was cutting the prized Atlantic white cedar down for use primarily in shipbuilding.
But as the land was gradually cleared of white cedar, Crabbe decided to plant cranberries in the sandy acidic soil. The Double Trouble Company was born and flourished until 1964, when the Crabbe family sold the tract to the state.
Double Trouble was a true company town, with a schoolhouse, store, bunkhouses, sawmill and foreman's quarters. The buildings are listed on both the New Jersey and National Historic Registers.
Sadly, the buildings are not in use, except for occasional tours of the cranberry sorting house. The long exposure to the elements has taken a toll on some. Bukowski is searching for ways to bring the village back to life.