A Legacy of Sustainable Farming in Southern New Jersey

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:02/22/2013 Updated:02/25/2013

The Haines family has been preserving its environment and producing cranberries in the Pinelands of southern New Jersey for more than 100 years.

Over one century ago, Martin Haines bought a parcel of land in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. His family began cranberry farming on the property in 1890. Five generations later, they continue to harvest the berries, now under the name Pine Island Cranberry Company. Today, the family owns 14,000 acres in the Pine Barrens, 1,400 of which is used for cranberry farming and 60 acres for blueberries, which they lease to other growers. 
Since the late 1970’s, their land has been encompassed by the preservation zone of the Pinelands National Reserve, established by Congress with the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. Unlike National Parks or National Forests, which do not allow any farming or development, the Reserve was created with the intent to maintain “its unique ecology while also permitting compatible development,” according to the New Jersey Pinelands Commission. This unique quality is what allows farmers like the Haines’ to work in a sustainable manner in a nationally protected area.
The Haines family tradition of good stewardship started well before it was mandated within the Reserve’s preservation zone. “It was my Dad…that was the real advocate for stewardship of all our resources, but they [previous generations] all understood that protecting the environment was important for the long-term strength of our business,” says Bill Haines, the current patriarch of the family.
This desire to protect the environment arose in part from a need for clean water, as Haines explains: “The key to growing cranberries is a large supply of clean water. On the east coast and Wisconsin, but certainly New Jersey, the winter - from mid December to April - they’re underwater to protect them from the cold. Right now I’m looking out my window and it’s like a bunch of little lakes. That water comes off in April and the growing season starts, but we use irrigation to protect from frost and later on to cool them and also to give them a drink. Then in the fall when we harvest we actually re-flood the bogs and harvest the berries in the water. We knock them off and they float to the top, then we raise the water so they’re easy to sweep up and take them out with conveyors.”
As a consequence of this demand for clean water in virtually every part of the cranberry growing process, “over the 100 plus years we’ve been here, the family has always bought land, particularly up stream, to guarantee our water supply, to have access to the water and that the water remained quality water,” Haines says. Their land is now 14,000 acres large, but “frankly, when you’re in the Pinelands nobody really wanted it, I mean putting together that parcel was not as impressive as it sounds since nobody wanted it anyway. You could pick it up very cheap…but then they had the good sense, or the vision, to see that they had this opportunity and they better take advantage of it.”
This was one of multiple innovative techniques that the Haines family employed to preserve their land and water. Robert Williams clarifies, “I would think they were way ahead of the curve in purchasing land from the watershed, understanding that the quality of the water is directly related to the quality of their fruit from the crop that they’re growing…you can’t have high quality cranberries unless you have a high quality watershed forest.”
Furthermore, you can’t have a high quality watershed without a healthy forest, and that is why they called upon Williams, a certified forester and wetland scientist for Land Dimensions Engineering, for help. Haines describes their forestry plan as two fold: “one, we’re trying to improve the pineland forest by prescribed burning, thinning, and in some cases cutting everything but seed trees, and then planting improved cedar or improved shortleafpine.”
For Williams, one difficulty with this kind of forestry is that you need to achieve a balance between protecting the forest and making the project economically viable. Haines understands this, but he places a higher priority on sustaining the resource than making money from it. “We don’t generate any income from that now, potentially in the future, but we feel like that’s a resource we need to take care of.”
In addition to the pines, the Haines family has large stands of Atlantic White Cedar on the property. While they do not generate a profit from the cedar they sell, they make enough money to cover the forestry costs, making it an economically and environmentally sustainable endeavor.
According to Williams, managing the cedar is particularly important, as these trees make up a globally threatened ecosystem and “land stewards believe that we have an obligation to help collaborate with Mother Nature” to protect these forests. It is important to note that, under Williams’ guidance, the Haines’ try to minimize the disturbance of the land. He adds; “There are certainly areas of these private forests where we don’t do anything. They’re doing well, and we don’t intend to harvest those trees…but we might intervene if something threatens those forests.”
The family also promotes stewardship and land preservation outside of their own property. Haines says that his father, the late Bill Haines Sr., was “a very strong advocate of land preservation, not only here, but farmland preservation and open space preservation in general.” He continues the tradition; “Dad’s a big politician,” says his daughter Stephanie. For 15 years, Haines was a freeholder, a position similar to county commissioner, for Burlington County, New Jersey. While he was a freeholder, “we passed a dedicated property tax, actually two, that raised, and still raises, about $20 million a year for the purchase of farmland development rights as well as the outright purchase of land for open space. So we were very aggressive as a county in terms of farmland and open space preservation.” The Haines’ are also involved with the American Tree Farm Society, Ocean Spray Cooperative and the Pinelands Commission.
Haines sums up the family philosophy well: “It’s a family business, and this is a resource that I want to be there for the next generation. Every generation has been charged with two things; one, get it to the next generation, and two, get it there better than you got it.”