Seven Generations of Family Service: Lee Brothers Cranberry Farm During Fall Harvest Ritual

The Culmination of a Year’s Work
By KELLEY ANNE ESSINGER | Nov 07, 2013
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

It was a crisp, early morning on Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Lee Brothers cranberry farm in Washington Township near Chatsworth where several generations of family were busy collecting cranberries during the second week of its 2½-week autumn harvest ritual. Loud machinery drowned out the men’s voices, causing them to shout. It was all business after the family had gotten a late start in the day due to some technical glitches and a late-night freeze.

As sprinklers spat across a seven-acre bog of frozen cranberries to help thaw them and an irrigation system worked to flood the area for picking the following day, family members, friends and staff waded across a nearby nine-acre bog, corralling freshly plucked cranberries into a bin that would be shipped off to the Ocean Spray processing plant 4 miles down the road, where they would later be turned into juice or dried as Craisins.

“Look at the color of them, man. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” said David Diapolo, 48, a family friend who has been working on the farm for 10 years. “I love cranberries. I could sit down and eat a whole boatload of them,” he added, while raking in the excess berries that had fallen outside the boom.

New Jersey is the third largest producer of cranberries after Wisconsin and Massachusetts, respectively.

“One of the things that’s really cool about this is a lot of families get together during the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and in our family it’s a little different,” said Stephen Lee IV, 45, mayor of Tabernacle Township, who co-owns the farm with his family. “We kind of start to get together the two weeks in October when we pick. That’s kind of the beginning of our celebration.”

While a group of tourists eagerly watched from the side of the bog and others roamed around the farm on a cranberry tour, the men, bundled up in layers and protected by waterproof chest waders, pushed the mix of red, pink and purple berries across the nearly 40-degree water toward a vacuum that sucked the fruit through a hose, onto a conveyor and into a storage bin on the back of a truck. It’s a tedious process during a 12-hour day; the crew often took time to toss cranberries at each other and sometimes eat a few directly from the water.

“I think it’s pretty neat to just be here all year and see a crop appear,” said Stephen Lee III, 67, the oldest family member working on the farm. “It comes because the blossoms were here at the right time. The bees were here, and they did a good job pollinating. And we had good growing weather and no hail. A lot of things have to work right for us to have a crop in October,” he explained.

The farm was acquired in 1868 by Lee III’s great-great-grandfather who emigrated from Ireland and purchased the land from a brother-in-law. Though Lee III grew up on the farm, like the rest of the Lee generations, he decided to go to college at Rutgers University, where he studied electrical engineering, a background that helped him design the different farm machinery, such as the cranberry picker and cranberry cleaner, which the family uses to better collect cranberries.

After flying airplanes in the Air Force for many years, Lee III finally turned to working on the family farm full-time with his father and brother in 1973. He has been working on the farm ever since and said he does not plan to ever retire. Of course, he said he plans to cut down on his hours to spend more time at his vacation home in Surf City, which his father bought in the late 1970s.

“We have 127 acres of harvest, and it takes us about two to 2½ weeks (to harvest it all), depending on what the crop size is,” said Lee IV. “It used to take us about a full month, but because of our picking techniques and our commitment to efficiency, it takes us a shorter amount of time.”

The farm includes 18 bogs that vary in size from three to 11 acres. By Saturday the farm had yielded nearly 29,000 barrels, which weigh 100 pounds each. The family still had another 14 acres to pick and another nine acres to deliver for the season.

The vines the berries were being picked from also included next year’s harvest, the buds that develop at the tip of the vines.

After the autumn harvest, the family will drain the bogs and sprinkle them with a post-harvest fertilizer. The bogs will be flooded again around the first week of December until the middle of April. Then they will be kept dry until October when they are ready to be picked, Lee IV explained.

The family harvests Stevens and Early Black cranberries. Three of the bogs were renovated seven years ago with three other varieties of cranberries, including Crimson Queen, Mullica Queen and Demoranville, which were cultivated at the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension, a substation of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station of Rutgers University, located in Chatsworth. Lee IV’s son, Andrew, 11, recently attended the Cranbassador Program at the station, which exposes local middle-school students to agriculture and agricultural research. Andrew said he hopes to eventually take over the family business after graduating from college.

“It’s a year’s worth of work. What we’re doing now is the romantic, picturesque portion of the time on the farm,” said Lee IV. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it. This is kind of the culmination of the growing season, but this is really a two-year process. It’s a year-round operation. Cranberries don’t stop growing on the weekend or the Fourth of July,” he added with a laugh.

On site to experience the process for the first time was Seaville resident Monica Jones, 45, with her daughter Ryann Jones, 20, and Ryann’s boyfriend, James Gallagher, 25. After having missed the harvest season last year, the group had made it a point to finally visit the farm.

“Steve said, ‘Come on up.’ He was very personable,” said Monica Jones. “I like that the farm is family owned, too, something they hand down generation to generation.”

Don Beckett, 82, of Mullica Hill, who had been raised on a dairy farm in southern New Jersey, had also made the trip, with his two daughters. It was their eighth time visiting the farm, which has become a sort of family tradition.

“We like cranberries,” said Beckett. “Cranberry nut bread and Ocean Spray is delicious. I wanted to know first-hand where my cranberries come from,” he joked.

As the work continued under the shining sun, the workers (and their cranberries) loosened up and shrugged off their jackets. Lee IV, who had stopped to watch his nephew John Lee Pesotski, 13, and two sons Andrew and Patrick, 8, looking through a bin of cranberries, took a second to enjoy the moment before tending to the crop again.

“That’s what makes it for me,” he said, “those three guys right there, the fact that they’re down here showing interest.”

kelleyanne@thesandpaper.net

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