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Biology 103
2000 First Web Report
On Serendip

Large Cranberry and High Bush Blueberry Cultivation

Allison Hayes-Conroy

Though agriculture as a trade has significantly diminished in the United States over the past century, it remains a vital part of the country's economic and ecological future. Both corporate and family-owned farming institutions exist, although the former is replacing the latter at an alarming rate. In the northeast, a handful of crops seem to grab the interest of both types of agricultural firms and dominate the local farming economy. Two of such crops are the Large Cranberry (Vaccinium Macrocarpon) and the High-Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium Carymbosum). Both are cultivated to a large extent in areas characterized by surface level ground water and thus raise questions as to the effects of the agricultural process on the surrounding wetlands habitat.

In order to fully understand these effects, the agricultural process must first be examined. The type of wetlands in which these two species most commonly grow is called a peatland. Peatlands are areas which are characterized by soil made up of partially decomposed remains of dead plants. In other words, peatlands are unique in that, unlike other wetlands, they have much organic soil (8). Both the cranberry and blueberry thrive in sandy, acidic soils of fen-type peatlands. A fen is a peatland which, in contrast to a bog, is fundamentally fed by surface and groundwater seepage and thus is more minerotrophic (8). The high bush blueberry may require a more well-drained soil than the cranberry ( 6). and this issue of moisture control will come up later as an important ecological concern.

Both the large cranberry and the high bush blueberry are considered wetland "heaths," plants known for their many survival characteristics. They have been known to withstand harsh winds and damaging ice; they have developed immunities to certain types of bacteria and viruses (8); and, finally, due to somewhat bitter leaves, the berry plants are not generally favored by herbivores (11). As heaths, they also maintain a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal (root) fungi which is thought to help stimulate large and healthy berry crops (8).

These crops are harvested on many farms in the Northeastern States, including New York, New Jersey, Maine, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire (1). The large cranberry is the top food crop in Massachusetts and the third highest in New Jersey. The high bush blueberry continues to be an important small crop in New Hampshire (6), where the majority are sold directly to the consumer, and joins the low sweet blueberry as a major food crop in New Jersey (10).

The two berry farms I examined are located among the stout trees and sandy soils of the New Jersey Pinelands. Both farms grow the large cranberry as the major crop, and the high-bush blueberry as a smaller, side crop. I will discuss first the Whitesbog preservation, located in Browns Mills, New Jersey. On this farmland, turned historical and ecological preserve, cranberries and blueberries grow side by side. The preserve provides a wealth of information on the ecological effects of wetlands farming, though, of course, the bulk of the information is given through the bias of the farmers.

Like all cranberry farms, Whitesbog relies heavily on large amounts of water to grow a prolific crop. Water is used during the winter to insulate the vines from damage, during the spring and summer to keep the sandy soil moist, as well as during harvesting in the fall when the "bogs" are flooded and the berries are knocked off the vine for collecting (7). Because of this great necessity for water, cranberry growers create reservoirs from which they can pump water. The Whitesbog farmers, as well as many other Pine Barrens farmers, consider themselves to be stewards of the watershed and wetlands ecosystem. Their irrigation systems are compatible, they proclaim, with wetlands preservation initiatives (2). They maintain that their reservoirs actually stabilize water levels in the wetlands areas which surround the farms. In addition, such pools of water provide perfect wetlands habitat for many species of plants, frogs, turtles, snakes, and waterfowl (3). Furthermore, because fresh water supply is so essential, the farmers sometimes have to safeguard up to fifteen acres of watershed per acre of cranberry bog. This ensures the preservation of much more of the wetlands ecosystem than just the farmer's fields (11).

The second farm I studied, the Tessone Family Farm, which grows cranberry and blueberry in separate fields, shares many of the same issues with the Whitesbog Preserve. The Tessone famiy retrieves their reservoir water from the existing wetland habitat surrounding the farm, using a system of ditches to irrigate both the cranberry and blueberry fields ( though water is most readily used in the cranberry fields) (10). Because their reservoirs are watched carefully, the habitat they provide may even be "ecologically of a higher order than most wetlands in a purely natural state" (3). As conscious protectors of the land, the owners of the farm are disheartened by the appearance of new, artificially created or highly modified wetlands farming areas. Such farms draw water out of wetlands areas without recharging the aquifer, at the expense of the natural wetlands areas. Therefore, the integrity of the habitats cannot be sustained (10).

A second issue at play with both the Tessone farm and Whitesbog Preserve, is the use of pesticides. Pesticides are a somewhat necessary part of most cranberry and blueberry cultivation operations. Most of the time, pesticides are used only when farmers deem them essential (2). Pests, which include the blueberry maggot, quackgrass, and mummy berry for blueberries and bog coppers for cranberries, must be controlled in order to produce a viable crop (8). Farmers do so through a variety of kinds of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, including Phosmet, Napropomide, Oryzalin, and Simazine (6). Such pesticides are potentially toxic to both important wetlands plants and animals, especially in high concentration (4). Factors effecting the extent of habitat disruption include surface and groundwater flows, high organic content in sediments (which peatlands have) and high biological productivity (4). Though wetlands are notoriously good for the breakdown and absorption of toxins and pesticides (5), wetland area farmers must take care to weigh the ecological consequences of pesticide use especially because their land lays so close to the water table.

The effects of cranberry and blueberry cultivation on wetlands ecosystems are many and varied. For the most part, the ecological consequences appear to be on the positive side. That is, the complex irrigation system which farmers in peatlands create, are in fact beneficial to other fen and bog species. In addition, such farms keep important wetlands habitats from being drained and residentially developed. Problems arise with the issue of pesticides as well as with the development of artificial or highly-modified wetlands for high-volume cultivation. Lower-volume farms such as Whitesbog and the Tessone farm, make all attempts to conform with wetlands preservation initiations and preserve the natural state of the areas in which they make a living. (1).

WWW Sources

1) Vaccinium Macrocarpon Ait: , Clements, Steven

2) Cranberry? , Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association

3) Neighbor to Neighbor, Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association

4) Collected Pesticide Data Goldsborough, L Gordin

5) Why Wetlands are Good Johnson, Geoff and Kim Roston

6) NH Crop Profile-High Bush Blue Berries, Lord, Bill

other sources:

7. Darlington, Katharine. "Cranberry Growing and The Pinebarrens" American Cranberry Growers Association. Chatsworth, NJ: 1983.

8. Johnson, Charles Bogs of the Northeast University Press of New England. Hanover: 1985

9. "New Jersey's Pinelands" (brochure) n.a. n.d. Pinelands Commission, New Lisbon, NJ.

10. Tessone, Christina. Personal interview and tour. October 2, 2000.

11. Tour of Whitesbog marsh area. October 2, 2000.

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