When someone mentions the Pine Barrens, a few things come to mind: The Jersey Devil, “Piney Power,” and many trees — over a million acres of them, to be exact. That’s all I knew before getting a private tour by the most knowledgeable and kind woman at Whitesbog Village, a working farm and living history museum of the region’s blueberry and cranberry crops.
The drive into Browns Mills was lined with trees, a dense forest that seemed never to end. Then, suddenly, I started to see water. Not necessarily large lakes or rivers, but squared plots of water. We were here — Cranberry Country! We could see the bogs left and right as we left onto the winding dirt road. Finally, we arrived at the parking lot of Whitesbog Village. The historic General Store was decked out in haystacks and pumpkins with a tall water tower in the background. We saw crafts, bumper stickers, and jars of cranberry jam as we entered. A feeling of autumn warmth surrounded us and made us feel welcome.
Unfortunately, the attendant at the register said they weren’t offering tours that day. My disappointment was apparent after the hour-and-a-half drive, so she motioned to a coworker to come over. The pleasant woman with white-rimmed glasses said she would be delighted to give us a private tour! She then unlocked all the buildings and started her speech, beginning with the land’s pre-historic roots with glaciers, mammoths, natives, and aquifers. It was all quite interesting, but I won’t spoil it here.
Whitesbog offers free tours on the first Saturday of each month!
In the gallery, you’ll find walls of sepia photographs of the White family that founded the farm and immigrant workers that tended the cranberry fields. You’ll see the early 1900s cameras that took them. Turn a corner, and you’ll find century-old tools used to cultivate the cranberries. In the east wing, you’ll appreciate local artists’ paintings depicting the Pine Barrens’ cranberry culture.
After touring the buildings of Whitesbog Village, the guide led us to a path where we learned about the agricultural aspect of cranberry farming. It’s almost like cranberries and the Pines were meant to be, as flora and fauna of the region work together in a symbiotic relationship. To make this sense, we first know that an infectious fungus once plagued the White’s cranberry crops.
They hired scientists to formulate poisons to destroy it. Still, the scientists found that the moss that grows naturally in the forests acts as a natural Ph balancer, turning groundwater into a protectant from an infectious fungus that once destroyed dry cranberry crops. Another critical factor is the mushroom that grows in the area — its root system helps the moss grow. All these elements work together to form acidic water in the aquifer below that farmers feed into the bogs. That’s when the vitality of the cranberry became dependent upon water.
Cranberries grow on dry land. When the cranberries are ripe, farmers control water flow into fields with trenches and pump houses for the wet harvest. Once the areas are flooded, machinery moves in, shaking the cranberries off the vine and corraling them into a vacuum. Wet-harvested cranberries are used for juices and sauce, while the cranberries you buy in a bag at the store are dry-harvested.
Cranberries are an autumn staple, and New Jersey is the 3rd largest producer! They have health benefits that other foods can’t offer and are a unique part of Garden State’s agriculture. This ruby red berry is a gem we can be proud of!
All this talk about cranberries is making me hungry! Check out some recipes using Jersey Fresh cranberries:
Want to make a cranberry trek of your own? You can visit Whitesbog Village year-round, head over to Chatsworth Cranberry Festival this weekend, or sign up for next year’s Farm to Fork Fondo, a bicycle ride around the Pine Barrens to visit cranberry farms (with a winery stop) and taste chef-prepared Jersey Fresh bites along the way!