Mullica Township cranberry farm the last of its kind in Atlantic County

NOVEMBER 14, 2011

Author’s Note:

I wrote this article in 2011 for The Press of Atlantic CityI had been writing about the local cranberry economy for a few years, and was looking for a new angle when I discovered this little farm that even locals didn’t know about. It turned out to be a very appropriate, and somewhat poignant, example of an ongoing trend. 

The day this was published, I walked into the newsroom, and an editor said, “Lee, I really had no interest in that cranberry article, but I started reading it, couldn’t stop, and before I knew it I had read the whole thing.” That’s exactly the experience all journalists want to create, and to this day I remember it as one of the best compliments I’ve ever received about my writing.

All photos are by Anthony Smedile.

Bill Fox holding cranberries at Fox's Cranberry Bog in Mullica Township, NJ, in 2011. Photo by Anthony Smedile.

MULLICA TOWNSHIP, NEW JERSEY — A narrow, sandy trail in Weekstown named Cranberry Court leads to the home of Ann and Bill Fox, the only continuously operating cranberry growers left in Atlantic County.

Their family has owned 22 acres of bogs for more than 50 years. In that half-century, they have watched many farmers leave the industry and let their plots be retaken by the surrounding forest.

That day will come, eventually, to Fox’s Cranberry Bog. Everything from ravenous Canada geese to rising pest-control costs to an increasingly competitive market has made the farm a burden on its 66-year-old operators.

“I put out fliers this year for people to come pick their own cranberries,” Ann Fox said, “and nobody came.”

When the last berry is sold, it will mark the end of an industry in Atlantic County and continue a trend of New Jersey losing cranberry growers, yet still increasing overall cranberry production.

Farming of the tart, native fruit was one of South Jersey’s original and premier industries, along with bog iron production and shipbuilding. The forges and mills made materials for sea vessels, which stored hardy, nutritious cranberries for their sailors to prevent scurvy.

In 1921, New Jersey harvested 11,200 acres of cranberries, its peak in total acreage. That number has since fallen to 3,100 acres and has remained flat since 2004, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service show.

Remarkably, however, the state’s production has increased during that time.

In 1919, the yield per acre of a cranberry bog was about 14 barrels, equivalent to 1,400 pounds. The state’s total production was 155,000 barrels, valued at $1.2 million.

In 2010, the yield per acre in New Jersey was 181 barrels and the state produced 562,000 barrels worth $32 million, making it the second best year on record.

With less than a third of the land, New Jersey farmers are producing more than three times the fruit that they did a century ago, as a result of ever-improving farming techniques.

This year’s harvest, which finished at the end of October, did not rival last year’s success. Temperatures in the triple digits during the summer stressed plants, and flooding at the end of the season caused fruit rot that affected most of the state’s growers.

“It was a pretty stressful season,” said Nick Vorsa, director of the Rutgers University Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research in Washington Township, Burlington County. “Some growers had a considerably reduced crop.”

Growing more with less

The Marucci Center’s work is one of the main reasons the state has been able to continue increasing its production despite its historically low acreage.

Vorsa and his researchers have studied and crossbred cranberry breeds in a variety of ways to find the most resilient, productive berries possible, and in recent years they have released several hybrids that grow exceptionally well.

This year, farmers at Joseph J. White Inc. in Pemberton Township, Burlington County, planted the first vines of a new variety called Scarlet Knight, a nod to the Rutgers mascot. The breed is robust and attractive, making it ideal for the fresh fruit market. About 95 percent of North American cranberries are processed into juices, sauces, and other products, but J.J. White sells its raw berries to supermarkets.

Fresh fruit is dry-picked, which today means that a machine is pushed over the vines and plucks off the berries. All berries were once “dry-picked” using hands or scoops.

Bill and Ann Fox with an old-fashioned dry cranberry harvester at Fox's Cranberry Bog in Mullica Township, NJ, in 2011. Photo by Anthony Smedile.

Most cranberries are wet-picked. Farmers flood a bog, a machine shakes the submerged vines, and the loosened berries float to the top, where they are gathered and sucked into a truck to be taken away to the processing plant.

Fresh fruit is more of a seasonal and niche market now, mostly supplied by Wisconsin and Canada, since the berries grow better in a slightly colder climate.

“We remain very bullish on selling fresh,” said Mike Stamatakos, vice president of agricultural supply and development for Ocean Spray, the farmer-owned cooperative in which nearly all of New Jersey’s growers are members. “It’s a very important part of our history and the industry.”

A farm with no outlet

Considering all that, the Fox farm in Mullica is even more unique, since it is an Atlantic County-based independent farm that dry-picks fresh cranberries.

Ann and Bill Fox raised three daughters on the farm, which Bill’s family acquired in 1947. It had been operational since the 19th century, and its original owners were the Weeks family, for which the Weekstown section of Mullica is named.

Ann and Bill both graduated from Oakcrest High School in Hamilton Township. Ann grew up in Mullica, Bill in neighboring Washington Township. Today, Bill is a retired AT&T technician, and Ann has always tended the farmhouse and helped run the cranberry operation when it was fully functioning.

At its peak, the farm harvested about 2,000 barrels of berries per season. This year, tens of thousands of pounds of berries sit in the bogs, unharvested.

Two years ago, the processor in Cumberland County that took most of the farm’s berries said it could get better prices from farmers in Canada, leaving them with no wholesale outlet for their small operation.

“When there are people out there selling 500 barrels an acre, that killed the small growers,” Ann Fox said. “Things change, and that’s the way it goes.”

Most of the berries they have sold since have been to family, friends, and occasional visitors. The couple sold about 1,500 pounds of berries this year to Natali Vineyards in Middle Township, which will be making cranberry wine to sell in the spring.

Letting nature take over

Already, much of the bogs are starting to be overgrown with weeds. The Foxes have not sprayed pesticide or herbicide in years, since it can cost about $1,200 for each aerial application.

Canada geese come in and chew up the vines, too. They try to scare the birds away with a shotgun, but they only fly to another part of the bog.

Then there is the ever-present problem of beavers damming up Pine Creek, which flows through the bog on its way to the Mullica River, leaving too much water in the fields and causing fungal growth.

Bill Fox standing in a cranberry bog at Fox's Cranberry Bog in Mullica Township, NJ, in 2011. Photo by Anthony Smedile.

Replanting, trimming, and rehabilitating the bogs to boost production and make the farm more completive would be exceedingly expensive and time-consuming, too.

“I mean, at my age, I wouldn’t do it,” Bill Fox said. “It wouldn’t be worth it.”

For now, they plan to keep up the modest operation. They said living on the farm is serene, like living on a nature preserve.

But, with disuse, nature will return to take over the bogs, as it has the many other former cranberry bogs in Atlantic County.