Editor’s note: William (Bill) Brash is president of the New Jersey Fire Safety Council (NJFSC) a statewide organization working to create community fire adaptation and resiliency, and a member of FAC Net. Tom Gerber is the B1 Section Firewarden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, and owner of the Quoexin Bogs cranberry farm in the Pine Barrens region of the state. In this blog, Bill recounts a conversation he had with Tom about his family’s generational experience with prescribed fire, wildfire, and cranberry farming.
Tom Gerber, owner of Quoexin Bogs, a 1,000-acre working cranberry farm in Medford, NJ, is a 4th generation cranberry grower and 3rd generation Forest Fire Warden. I spent a morning in Tom’s living room on the farm, located in the Pine Barrens area, listening to his family’s history. Afterwards, I felt compelled to write about it and get it down as a record. The evolution and fascinating story of cranberry growing and living with fire in the New Jersey Pine Barrens is one worth telling.
History and Context of the New Jersey Pine Barrens
The New Jersey Pine Barrens is a fire-adapted ecosystem composed predominantly of pitch pine, virginia pine, and some shortleaf pine; with an understory of scrub, blackjack and post oaks; and huckleberry, highbush blueberry and mountain laurel in the shrub layer. This 1.1 million acre forest has been shaped by fire since the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier 10,000 years ago.
The original human occupants of the Pine Barrens are the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, inhabiting present-day New Jersey, Delaware, southeastern New York and eastern Pennsylvania. Lenni-Lenape means “Original People” or “Common People.” Archaeologists have found evidence that Indigenous peoples have lived in this area for at least 12,000 years, and that fire has long been used as a land management tool. The name of Tom’s cranberry farm, Quoexin Bogs, comes from the Lenni Lenape word meaning “little.”
The Pine Barrens is home to many unique species of flora and fauna not found in other parts of New Jersey. It is also home to 800,000 people that live, work and recreate within its boundaries. The Pine Barrens experience regular wildfire and prescribed fire activity, some of which takes place on the many historic cranberry farms found in the area. Today, New Jersey ranks number three in total cranberry production, producing over 550,000 barrels a year (with each barrel weighing 100 pounds).
The Gerber Family’s Rich History of Cranberry Growing and Living with Fire
Tom Gerber’s great-grandfather came to New Jersey from Germany in 1880, raising 11 children. The oldest was Julius Gerber, Tom’s grandfather, born in 1882. Julius began his career working in cranberry bogs, eventually becoming Foreman of Quoexin Bogs in Medford, NJ in 1912, where he would perform regular prescribed burns for the benefit of the crop. During this time, the area also experienced frequent wildfires. Building upon his experience with prescribed fire in the bogs, Julius accepted the position of a Township Fire Warden in Medford in 1917. During his career, Julius passed on his knowledge of cranberry farming at Quoexin Bogs, prescribed fire, and wildfire management to his son Paul (Tom Gerber’s father). Paul became the Fire Warden for the Medford area after Julius’ passing in 1946.
Young Tom Gerber grew up on the cranberry farm at Quoexin Bogs, learning how to perform prescribed burns every spring from his father Paul and uncle Ross. Tom would eventually become Fire Warden with the NJ Forest Fire Service in the area, following in the footsteps of his father Paul and grandfather Julius.
The Gerber family has dedicated three generations of men to serve as Fire Wardens in the Medford area since Julius began the tradition in 1917. All three Gerber men worked hundreds of fires during their careers.
Carrying on the Tradition of Prescribed Fire in the Cranberry Bogs
Today, Tom performs annual prescribed burning activities on the farm, creating a unique outdoor classroom where practitioners can view the results of 100 years of periodic prescribed burning on the same forest. In April of 2023, FAC Net hosted its annual member workshop in the Pine Barrens, taking a special trip to Quoexin Bogs to hear Tom’s story and see the positive effects of a long-term prescribed fire regime.
Quoexin Bogs is one of the few and perhaps the only example of such prescribed burning activities over such a long period of time. The forests surrounding the working cranberry bogs at Quoexin show the benefits of periodic prescribed burns to reduce fuel loading and the risk of fire impacting the bogs, farm buildings, and Tom’s home. Ecologically, the burns allow for ample sunlight and air movement to reach all the trees without unhealthy competition that reduces forest heath and increases the risk of disease and insect infestations.
The Future of Quoexin Bogs and the Gerber Family of Firefighters
The future of Quoexin Bogs is secured, as the development rights have been purchased by the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program. The land will remain in agriculture in perpetuity, ensuring the culture of cranberry farming that began in the middle of the 19th century.
The long history of prescribed burning on various forest types throughout the property is unique to Quoexin, and represents an opportunity to measure the long term effects of prescribed fire for multiple research purposes. Tom Gerber is interested in pursuing the possible research benefits that are available due to the long term management activities on the farm. Tom’s knowledge of cranberry agriculture and experience in wildfire is invaluable. Tom is adamant about the need to share this information as a mentor and guide to anyone interested, before it is lost.
New Jersey is quite fortunate to be the beneficiaries of a family dedicated to preserving their land, passing on their invaluable knowledge of historical culture, and dedicating their lives to protecting others.