According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, cranberries are the largest agricultural food commodity produced in Massachusetts – which is no surprise, given that the state has more than 14,000 acres dedicated to the production of cranberries.
Ten-and-a-half of those acres make up P.J. Cranberries, a farm owned by Pete Hanlon, who, after 33 years with the Massachusetts Environmental Police, retired in 2009 and began focusing full time on the land that he purchased in 1991 to develop and grow cranberries. With his two sons lending a hand, Hanlon and his boys represent the family’s third and fourth generation of cranberry growers.
Located on Cape Cod, in the town of Sandwich, P.J. Cranberries is situated on the edge of a large freshwater marsh system and includes three growing areas made up of alternating layers of sand, peat, and gravel – commonly known as bogs.
Cranberry farming has been a way of life for many a Cape Codder over the past 200 years or so. And Hanlon, himself a collector of antiques, has managed to seamlessly combine his admiration for tradition and history with his respect and appreciation for the modern technologies that help make P.J Cranberries the successful operation that it is today.
Hanlon samples his berries by hand, using a cranberry scoop that once belonged to his grandfather. But at harvest time, the cranberries are picked by machine. Once picked, the berries are put into a 1934-built wooden bounce-board apparatus known as a Hayden separator. As Pete would tell you, “A good berry bounces and a bad berry plops.”
When it comes to the weather – an undeniably crucial factor for all farmers – Hanlon can easily quote an early twentieth-century mathematical formula that considers dew point and temperature in order to predict frost, but he’d be just as happy to talk about the high-tech wireless weather monitoring system that’s currently deployed at his farm.
As he explains, keeping an eye on weather conditions is job one for a cranberry grower, with frost being a concern around harvest time in the fall, and especially in the early spring when the plants begin to bud. He notes that when it comes to frost, “fifteen minutes after going below a certain temperature, you will not have a crop.” Irrigating with water protects the bogs from frost because the heat that’s released as the water freezes keeps the cranberry buds at a safe temperature. The trick is knowing exactly when frost is going to occur, and, accordingly, when and how much to irrigate.
Like all farmers, Hanlon has relied on monitoring methods to help keep him informed of weather conditions and ready to take action to protect his crops. Previously employed monitoring methods used at P.J. Cranberries included low-set thermometers that displayed the lowest overnight temperature in a bog. But that required being out at the bogs all night when there was a threat of frost. Another method was a hard-wired Sensaphone system that involved running a 1,200-foot cable from a telephone pole out to a box containing a battery connected to a temperature sensor in one of Hanlon’s bogs. And while the system updated Hanlon about temperatures at his bogs, it was not highly accurate and didn’t provide a graph of weather conditions over time. Plus, certain components had to be replaced every time a lightning storm came through the area.
Looking for a more dependable monitoring method and having been told by a fellow cranberry grower of the affordability and reliability of HOBO monitoring products from Onset, Hanlon installed a HOBO U30 weather station at P.J. Cranberries. Later, he replaced the U30 with the more flexible HOBO RX3000 station, which gave him instant access to weather data via HOBOlink (HOBO's cloud-based software platform), and provided the advantage of alarm notifications by text and or email when conditions reached user-set thresholds.
One night, however, when Hanlon was pumping water into his bogs to protect his cranberries from frost, he noticed fog coming in at the far end of his third bog, near the river, where the RX3000’s wired temperature sensors didn’t reach. Unfortunately, with fog comes cold, and despite his irrigation efforts that night, Hanlon ended up losing about 50 barrels of cranberries due to frost. As he puts it, “We knew we had to monitor that area with the fog because it's just weird and it's close to the river, and it just gets colder a lot quicker."
The solution? Hanlon expanded his monitoring capabilities by adding wireless sensors to his HOBO RX3000, which is the basic component of HOBOnet, Onset’s advanced wireless mesh network system for remote monitoring over a large area. Or, as Hanlon would describe it, “A flawless bog-wide wireless monitoring system that encompasses dew points, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, soil moisture, and temperature of the cranberry vines – all done remotely from my phone.”
Blending the old with the new, Hanlon relies on and trusts his HOBOnet system completely – noting that after three years it “remains bulletproof in the salt air” – yet he still feels more comfortable being on site and in manual control of the water pump that’s going to ultimately protect his cranberries!
For more information, delicious recipes, or to have some of Pete Hanlon’s cranberries shipped right to your door, check out the P.J. Cranberries website!