When someone mentions the Pine Barrens, a few things come to mind: The Jersey Devil, “Piney Power,” and a whole lot of 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 to never end. Then, suddenly, I started to see water. Not necessarily large lakes or rivers, but squared plots of water. We were here — Cranberry Country! As we made a left onto the winding dirt road, we could see the bogs left and right. Finally, we arrived into the parking lot of Whitesbog Village. Right away, we could see the historic General Store all decked out in haystacks and pumpkins with a tall water tower in the background. As we entered, we saw crafts and bumper stickers and jars of cranberry jam. 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 pre-historic roots of the land with glaciers and mammoths and natives and aquifers. It was all quite interesting, but I won’t spoil it for you 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 last wing, you’ll appreciate paintings by local artists that depict the cranberry culture of the Pine Barrens.
After touring the buildings of Whitesbog Village, the guide led us out onto 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 the flora and fauna of the region work together in a symbiotic relationship. To have this make sense, we have to first know that an infectious fungus once plagued the White’s cranberry crops.
They hired scientists to formulate poisons to destroy it, but what the scientists found was 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 important factor is the mushroom that grows in the area — its root system somehow helps the moss to grow. All of 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 actually grow on dry land. When the cranberries are ripe, farmers control the flow of water into fields with trenches and pump houses for the wet harvest. Once the fields are flooded, machinery moves in that shake the cranberries off of the vine and corrals 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 in the country! They have health benefits that other foods can’t offer and are a unique part of the 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!