Environmental worries cramp cranberry farmers Federal officials fear ecological damage from N.J. cropland expansion


SPEEDWELL, N.J. - Steve Lee watched the rising water flood the sunken cranberry fields, gently buoying the vine-tethered crop. Then the harvesting machines rolled through, shaking the berries loose to float on the surface like a vermilion carpet.

"Some people may think it's thick enough to walk on, but I know you can't," Lee, a cranberry farmer, said.

Across five generations, this red harvest has brought prosperity to the 35 or so farm families who work the cranberry bogs of New Jersey's pinelands.

Thanks to this swatch of wildness, the nation's most densely populated state is also the third-largest cranberry producer in the world, after Massachusetts and Wisconsin. But this year, the usual rigors and rhythms of harvest time are mixed with disquiet and some anxiety for the future.

At issue are the farmers' efforts to make it easier to expand their 3,800 acres of fields into adjacent wetlands - including portions of the Pine Barrens. While the proposal has the support of state environmental officials and some state conservation groups, it is opposed by federal environmental agencies and national environmental groups, who fear that the loss of wetlands to agriculture will damage the sensitive ecology of the state's pinelands.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to put the plan on hold, pending further study. To the farmers, the decision was a rebuke to what they see as their own ecological sensitivity.

A lucrative business

Their crop, they insist, is native to the wetlands and as much a part of it as the 84 species of birds, 14 species of mammals, 14 reptile types and 12 species of fish that thrive there. It is the perfect no-till crop and it requires the purest of waters, so by necessity, they argue, they must be good stewards of the land, careful with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that could contaminate the ground water and streams and eventually their product.

The farmers are hardly crying immediate economic hardship. With an annual harvest valued at about $25 million, cranberries rank fifth among New Jersey's agriculture products. Divided among a mere 35 cranberry-growing families, it is a lucrative business.

What the growers fear, though, is competition from abroad - that their ranking and revenue will be lost to the new, spacious and less regulated frontiers of cranberry growing in Chile and British Columbia.

"It's been very frustrating," said Bill Haines, the state's largest single grower, whose 1,000 acres of production bogs amid 10,000 acres of forested wetlands account for almost a third of the total state cranberry acreage.

"We have only scratched the surface of the demand, and the markets for our product and juices are growing in Europe and Canada. The thing hampering us in getting those markets is lack of product," he said.

Michele Breyer, assistant director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said her group generally supported modest expansion of the cranberry bogs sprinkled throughout and along the fringes of the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve. The reserve, established by the federal and state governments in 1978, sits atop the Cohansey Aquifer, the largest aquifer east of the Mississippi, and its commissioners, including Lee, have supported the expansion proposals.

'Part of our culture'

"Cranberries are a native fruit to the wetlands and part of our culture," Breyer said. "And the farmers, with their emphasis on pure water, have an impact on protecting the wetlands. We believe in moderate expansion."

Those who are holding up federal approval said that they were not opposed to some increase in cranberry acreage but insisted that it could be accomplished on less environmentally sensitive upland areas.

They agree with growers that cranberry bogs have far less impact on the wetlands than other agricultural practices and that they are nothing like the subdivisions and other developments that fill in the wetlands forever. They also concede that cranberry growing adds little contamination to the area.

But to the opponents, the issue is not contamination but the manipulation of the natural environment.

"Cranberry beds are actively maintained as a monoculture and provide no structural diversity," said Cliff Day, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's New Jersey office. He noted that the growing areas for the creeping vines were scraped and cleared of trees, shrubs and grasses and made inhospitable to the wildlife naturally found in the functioning wetlands that the farmers seek to convert.

Magnitude called significant

William Neil, the associate director of the New Jersey Audubon Society, which also opposes the speedier permit process, said that the magnitude of what the farmers wanted was significant.

In the last five years, the state had lost 609 acres of wetlands to development. The 300 acres the cranberry farmers are seeking over five years concentrated in Burlington County is half of this amount.

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