Small South Jersey Growers Carry on the Legacy of the BlueberrySeptember 7th, 2018
Cornucopia’s Take: If you find yourself in South Jersey, take a trip to the pick-your-own blueberry farms selling heirloom varieties you’ve never conceived of if you’ve only eaten blueberries from the store. Large producers increasingly grow them hydroponically, although Driscoll’s uses the misleading euphemism “container growing.” They grow varieties that can be easily harvested, packed, and shipped—a completely different food than can be plucked directly from an heirloom bush grown in soil.
In the Shadow of the Blueberry Titans, Smaller Growers Thrive
The New York Times
by Rachel Wharton
The cultivated blueberry was born in South Jersey, and today its heirloom descendants can still be found on little farms sprinkled among the big producers.
Jeanne Lindsay often apologizes for the semi-wild state of her pick-your-own blueberry patch, which she runs on the farm her in-laws started in 1941.
It’s no wonder: Since her husband died four years ago, Mrs. Lindsay, 75, has to manage the 16-acre homestead mostly by herself. It doesn’t help that she tends to compare her 65-year-old plants — antique blueberry breeds like juicy Weymouths, Jerseys tall enough to provide shade and six tart-fruited Rancocas — to the perfectly trimmed bushes at her neighbor’s giant farm across the street.
Yet it’s precisely the old-fashioned imperfections of Lindsay’s Farm that make its moss-carpeted rows worth the trip for regulars, many of whom now bring their children.
“Some people come just for the Rancocas,” Mrs. Lindsay said. “They’re good pie berries.”
From late June until the end of July, this corner of South Jersey, known as the Pinelands, is the blueberry epicenter of the Eastern United States; this flat region of sandy soils is where commercial cultivation of the berries began a century ago. Today, New Jersey’s blueberry crop remains the fifth-largest in the nation by acreage, eclipsed in recent years by those of states (like Washington and Georgia) with more land for growers to expand into, said Mark Ehlenfeldt, a blueberry breeding specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture in nearby Chatsworth.
Most of New Jersey’s blueberries are now cultivated on vast farms with hundreds of acres, which normally grow just three high-yield varieties that can withstand machine picking and shipping: Dukes in June, Bluecrops by July, then smaller, tarter Elliots to finish the season.
But if you take the time to drive the smaller byways of the Pinelands — a seven-county area that includes a million government-preserved acres of pitch pine, white cedar and a fine-grained soil called sugar sand — you can still find plenty of less conventional blueberries, and smaller farms, like Mrs. Lindsay’s.
One of those is Stevens Blueberries, a seven-acre commercial operation at the end of a white sand road deep in the pine forests of New Lisbon. When Richard and Connie Stevens bought their farm in the 1980s, it came with a blueberry hoeing machine made from Ford Model A parts. Mr. Stevens was then in the military, working nearby at what was then McGuire Air Force Base.
The farm is now run by their 38-year-old son, Richard Stevens Jr.; the family sells its crop to a packer, but also allows customers to pick their own berries. They still grow mostly what was planted there in 1951, said the son, offering a taste of Elizabeths, Stanleys, Weymouths, Berkeleys, Blue Crops and Jerseys, plus a few Rancocas that are off-limits.
“They’re my mom’s pride and joy,” said the younger Mr. Stevens. “We’re not allowed to touch them.”
These breeds were also the pride and joy of Elizabeth Coleman White, a cranberry farmers’ daughter who worked with government researchers to establish the commercial blueberry industry in 1916. Until then, blueberries were a wild thing, an indigenous American fruit foraged like ramps or morels. White made taming the Northern highbush berries in her woods her life’s work, and made American agricultural history in the process.
Like cranberries, blueberries thrive in acidic soils, which the Pinelands have in abundance.
“They were really looking for a second crop for cranberry growers,” said Allison Pierson, the director of Whitesbog Preservation Trust, which runs the 3,000-acre White family farm, now preserved inside the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest. Known as Whitesbog Historic Village, it includes the Whites’ original plants, as well as the long-forgotten Katherine, June, Pemberton, Dixi and Wareham bushes still planted around her house. (Yes, Ms. Pierson said, you can pick from them.)
Elizabeth White, who died in 1954, also helped start the Tru-Blu Cooperative Association to distribute and market the fruit across the country, with the help of advertisements in the New York City subway and breakfasts at B. Altman & Company, the former department store on Fifth Avenue.
The group’s first order of business was just to get people to call them blueberries. Originally, said Mr. Ehlenfeldt, who moonlights as the newsletter editor for Whitesbog, most people called any blue berry a huckleberry, which is a different fruit.
Botanically speaking, there are three types of blueberries, said Mr. Ehlenfeldt: highbush (the type grown on most commercial farms), lowbush (still only wild and most famous in Maine) and rabbiteye. The rabbiteye berries have an earthier flavor, he said, and are traditionally found in the American South, though Mr. Ehlenfeldt has quite few in his vast research collection.
Most cultivated blueberry plants now grown in New Jersey — and many around the world — can be traced directly back to White’s work.
A few miles west of Whitesbog is Haines Berry Farm, run by the great-grandson of the Whitesbog superintendent. And just across the road from Whitesbog is Pine Barrens Native Fruits, run by White’s great-nephew Joe Darlington.
The Darlingtons lease and farm the cranberry bogs at Whitesbog, and care for several acres of Elizabeths. Released in 1966 and named after White — who considered it to have exquisite flavor — the Elizabeth is a cult favorite, said Connie Casselman, who works in the office at Pine Barrens Native Fruits. Ms. Casselman alerts the farm’s mailing list when the fruits, which can grow to the size of a quarter, are for sale.
“They’re the sweetest berry you’ll ever have,” she said. “People come from all over to get them. It’s insane.”
They pick for you at Pine Barrens Native Fruits. But at Fred Plus III, in Pemberton Township, visitors are free to pick their own berries, and explore the historic fields and surrounding pine forest.
The farm is owned by Fred Detrick, 96, a retired professor who still takes to his tractor to monitor more than 60 acres of berries. He used to sell twice that commercially to make extra money in the summers through the Whites’ Tru-Blu cooperative, which closed in 2005.
Mr. Detrick said the cooperative told him he could make $1,000 an acre, though he’s quick to add that he never has.
His daughter-in-law Roni Detrick, 61, now runs his you-pick operation, where customers can rest in the shade of an ancient oak after a few hours of thumbing clusters of old-fashioned sweet Walcotts into a pail. They have Dukes, Bluecrops and Elliots, too.
Ms. Detrick, a clinical social worker, also has plans to let at-risk teenagers from nearby Camden pick and deliver berries to homeless shelters this summer, and to lead a Japanese style of nature walks called shinrin yoku, or forest bathing. (She has yet to convince her father-in-law that’s a good idea.)
Stevens Blueberries also straddles old and new. The younger Mr. Stevens, a self-described “hard-core” science-type who teaches pineland ecology at Rowan University, has recently planted 6,000 square feet of wildflowers to attract native insects to pollinate the plants. It’s both to enhance crop production and, eventually, to lure visitors for their blooms. He hopes to go pesticide-free, and planted a row of native beach plums, too. (Like most of the other small farmers, he tries to use pesticides sparingly and only when necessary.)
Mr. Stevens’ favorite berries are the Bluecrops, especially if they sit on the bush for an extra day or two to get a little sweeter. Like most New Jersey growers, however, he’ll tell you it’s not the variety that matters so much, but how long ago they left the bush.
“I’ve turned into one of the blueberry snobs,” Mr. Stevens said. “You should see me in the grocery store.” Look for the dusty blue-white coating that slips away the more the fruit is handled, he said: “That’s how you know it’s a fresh berry.”
Adam Paluszak, 38, the fourth-generation owner of A.G. Ammon Nurseryin Chatsworth, which still grows heirloom varieties like the Elizabeths for farms and home gardeners, may be even snobbier.
“Just picked — that’s probably the most important thing,” Mr. Paluszak said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even eat refrigerated berries.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 3, 2018, on Page D7 of the New York edition with the headline: Thriving in the Shadow of Blueberry Titans.