Harvesting a Family Tradition

Judy Simons Church ’80 relies on her education experience to run her family’s 180-year-old berry farm.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

To say that Judy Simons Church ’80 “bleeds cranberry” is an understatement. For the Rider alumna, harvesting the tart fruit is a full-time job.

Similar to Andrew J. Rider, a founder and the first president of the institution that now bears his name, Church is a cranberry grower. As the owner of Simons Berry Farm, in Tabernacle, N.J., Church oversees a 275-acre farm, which produces 6,500 to 7,000 pounds of cranberries and 6,500 to 7,000 pounds of blueberries per year. The 182-year-old farm, located a short distance from Route 206 in the heart of the Pinelands, dates back to Church’s great-great grandparents. Though Church spent 15 years teaching in South Carolina after earning her diploma from Rider, she returned to her family farm in the late 1990s.

This fall marked Church’s 16th cranberry harvest. Cranberries are typically harvested from mid-September to early November. On Church’s farm, it takes about three to four weeks in October to collect all the berries.

Since Simons Berry Farm has a contract with Ocean Spray, the majority of the low-lying fruit is wet harvest. During the wet harvest, each bog is flooded, one at a time, with water from the reservoir. One acre of cranberries needs about 10 acres of water, Church explained. As the bog becomes filled, the cranberries, containing air chambers, float to the top of the water. A small portion of the cranberries are dry-picked. These berries are distributed to local restaurants and stores.

“What most people don’t know about cranberry farmers is we’re stewards of the land. We recycle the water that we use in the bogs and put it back into the reservoir,” Church explained. “New Jersey is the third-largest cranberry industry in the country. This is one of the state’s best kept secret.”

During harvest season, her 12 employees work seven days a week, almost 12 hours a day, and it can take up to a day and a half to collect all the berries from a single bog, by a process exactly like the one depicted in the Ocean Spray commercials. Men, dressed in warm coats and waders, move through the waist-high water, pushing the berries inside a yellow boom toward a conveyor. 

Meanwhile, behind the conveyor, two employees quickly collect the cranberries to check that there are no leaves or stems attached to the berries. The cranberries continue up the conveyor and are dumped in the back of a truck en route to the Ocean Spray receiving station about 10 miles away in Chatsworth.

“You don’t go to school for this,” explained Church, a member of the American Cranberry Growers Association. However, she said she has often relied on her experience at Rider and as a teacher when making management decisions. “In education, you’re a classroom manager. I had all the skills I needed to manage the farm.”

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This fall marked Judy Simons Church’s 16th cranberry harvest.