How helping cranberry farmers return their farms to their natural state is protecting water quality and curbing flooding in the New Jersey Pinelands
Spanning most of southern New Jersey, the Pinelands region is renowned for its dense forests, placid rivers, and an impressive collection of rare plants and animals. Also sharing the landscape are a collection of approximately 25 cranberry farms spanning some 3,000 acres — several of which are family-run and struggling to stay afloat against better-capitalized competitors growing modern, hardier cranberry varieties.
With some of these farms opting to get out of the cranberry business, the Open Space Institute (OSI) through its Delaware River Watershed Initiative is partnering with current and former farmers to offer conservation of cranberry boglands as an alternative to development. Once the land is protected, conservationists with OSI’s support begin working to “re-wild” the bogs. Through a carefully balanced process, the conservationists manage the land’s transition from generations-old artificial flooding practices associated with the cranberry harvest, to help protect the Pinelands’ long-term hydrology and habitat.
Craig Mehler is one early partner and pioneer in this effort. A few years prior, Mehler, facing the realization of market forces, decided to shut down the majority of his family’s cranberry business. But in the end, the closure of most the farming operations would signify a new opportunity for his land.
Today, Mehler is working with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF), with the support of OSI, to re-wild a significant portion of his 230-acre property, located in the headwaters of the Rancocas Creek, a key tributary of the Delaware River. He is now determined to help protect the land for both the creek and the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer — a source of clean fresh water under the New Jersey Pinelands that provides drinking water for millions of people.