A good season for N.J. blueberries

Anthony "Butch" DiMeo Jr. shows off fresh blueberries from his 400-acre Columbia Fruit Farms in Hammonton as workers ready the newly harvested fruit. "We have a nice crop," he said.
Anthony "Butch" DiMeo Jr. shows off fresh blueberries from his 400-acre Columbia Fruit Farms in Hammonton as workers ready the newly harvested fruit. "We have a nice crop," he said. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2013

Life is good in Hammonton, the blueberry capital of the world, or at least New Jersey.

The Dukes blueberries are fat and juicy, plumped up by last week's daily deluge of afternoon rain.

Blueberry milkshakes are back on the menu at the Stewart's on White Horse Pike. They are luscious and they'll probably be available at Sunday's annual Red, White and Blueberry festival at Hammonton High, along with blueberry cannoli, bagels, doughnuts, pies, and ice cream.

"We have a nice crop," Anthony "Butch" DiMeo Jr. owner of Columbia Fruit Farms Inc., a 400-acre blueberry farm, said as he drove around the fields Thursday in his SUV.

Best of all, the berries came in a little later this year - mid-June instead of late May. The late arrival of Jersey's crop means the state has more of the nation's ever-growing blueberry market to itself for longer, picking up after North Carolina's harvest ends and before Michigan's begins.

In 1995, Americans consumed just under two cups of blueberries each, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, a trade group.

Now with blueberries being touted as a superfood, good for whatever ails you, national per capita consumption has more than doubled, to nearly five cups a person in 2011.

On Thursday at DiMeo's farm, hundreds of Haitians from Florida handpicked the Dukes, carefully piling the berries in shoe-box-sized containers attached to their belts. Best technique means no stems and no unripe, green berries.

Trucks roved the perimeters of the fields, carrying ice water to the workers and ferrying berries back to the production house on Middle Road.

There, a mainly Mexican staff picked out the green or damaged berries as the harvest moved by on conveyor belts, spilling finally into plastic pint containers with the Top Crop label.

This year's crop is shaping up as nicely average - not as impressive as 2011, which was a banner year.

Many factors impact a blueberry crop, but a lot of it comes down to timing and weather, not just in New Jersey, but in Jersey's competitor states, Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan.

The weather worked to New Jersey's advantage in 2011 when 62 million pounds of berries were valued at $94.7 million. The weather meant the yield was unusually high, 8,050 pounds per acre, compared with the usual mid- to upper 6,000s.

But 2011's weather wasn't kind to Michigan, which had an early frost. Michigan's per-acre yield dropped dramatically, and production fell from 109 million pounds in 2010 to 72 million in 2011.

In every state, bees begin the process. They have the important job of pollinating the blueberry bushes, but their temperamental work habits rival any spoiled brat on a movie set.

"If it is real hot real early, the bees can't work," DiMeo said.

They also don't like it cold, wet, or windy. "If you get real wet, windy weather during pollination, the bees say, 'I'll just stay home and watch television,' " said Gary Pavlis, Atlantic County's agricultural agent.

But this spring's weather suited the bees enough for them to create a decent, if not a bumper, crop in Jersey's two key blueberry counties, Atlantic and Burlington.

On Thursday, DiMeo palmed a cluster of Dukes on a bush in his field. If it had been a bumper year, he said, the cluster would have been big and generous, like grapes, large enough to tumble out of his palm.

"Blueberries start in the country in Florida, then Georgia, then May is North Carolina and then there's New Jersey and after New Jersey is Michigan.

"We have the little window between North Carolina and Michigan, and that window is very important," Pavlis said.

In 2012, when the window opened early in New Jersey, growers here were scrambling for pickers - the usual migrant crews were still down south finishing North Carolina's harvest.

The first berries to be harvested tend to be the best for the fresh market, but they need to be picked on time. The season's profitability depends on making money from the fresh produce, Pavlis said.

In 2012, for example, fresh, handpicked berries commanded $1.64 per pound, compared with $1.21 for machine-harvested berries that end up in jam and pie filling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.

The greater the difference in the two prices, the more it pays to hire pickers. Machine harvesting is considerably less expensive, Pavlis said. And farmers get paid quickly for their fresh produce, but must wait months for a check from the food processors.

So far, this year's crop is coming in well, both because of, and in spite of, the daily rains.

When it rains, the moisture in the soil doesn't go to the plants' branches or leaves, but right to the berry, adding girth and juice, Pavlis said.

So far, the rain hasn't been heavy enough to knock the berries off the bushes, but it has slowed the picking process. "The main thing we're concerned with is lightning," DiMeo said. "That's the most dangerous thing. We have to be prepared to move people instantly off the fields."

Luckily, the heavy rains haven't been accompanied by hail.

"You get hail and it nicks all the berries and you can't sell them," DiMeo said. "It can put you in the poorhouse in one night."


Red, White and Blueberry Fest

Where: Hammonton High School, Old Forks Road, off White Horse Pike. Free.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday.

Highlights:

Blueberry food - cannolis, turnovers, pies, ice cream.

2 p.m. Blueberry pie-eating contest.

Car show, live music, kiddie rides.

900 crates of blueberries for sale.

Parking: Free, at nearby schools; follow signs. Shuttle bus to the festival.


Contact Jane Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at www.inquirer.com/jobbing.

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