Good pollination, timely rainfall, and plenty of sunshine have local blueberry farmers anticipating a harvest that should give them plenty to cheer about this holiday weekend.
The picking of the sapphire-colored fruit, which began mid-June and is expected to stretch into August, typically peaks in the weeks just before and after the Fourth of July, said Joseph Martinelli of Blu-Jay Farms in Hammonton, who wholesales his blueberries through Dandrea Produce of Buena. “The quality is excellent. They’re a good size and firm,” he added.
Last year’s statewide yield was a record-setting 54 million pounds valued at $90.2 million, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service of the US Department of Agriculture.
New Jersey ranks second in blueberry production behind Michigan. But whereas about 80 percent of Michigan’s crop is sold for processing, about 80 percent of New Jersey’s crop is sold as fresh fruit, explained Gary C. Pavlis, an agricultural agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Almost 99 percent of the approximately 8,000 acres of blueberries in the state are grown in Atlantic and Burlington counties, he added.
“New Jersey has a real reputation for quality, fresh-market fruit,” said Mark Ehlenfeldt, a US Department of Agriculture research geneticist at Rutgers University’s Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension in Chatsworth.
Three varieties make up the bulk of the local crop, said Pavlis: Duke, which will be available until early this month; Blue Crop, which is picked during the first three weeks of July; and Elliott, which wraps up the season.
From a grower’s perspective, “the prices have been very good on blueberries over the past few years,” said Ehlenfeldt. It wasn’t always that way, however. “There used to be a time, four or five years ago, when the prices in summer really didn’t cover the production costs,” he said.
Demand for blueberries took off after the USDA identified them as the richest source of antioxidants among the 40 most commonly eaten fresh fruits and vegetables. Local acreage increased in response. When Martinelli first began growing blueberries in 1986, he had about 30 acres; now he cultivates 60. Even farmers in the northern part of the state, not a traditional blueberry production area, have begun growing the fruit.
Some farmers also have begun looking for ways to broaden the availability of locally grown blueberries. To expand the scope of the business he runs with his wife, Josephine, and children, Joseph Jr. and Dominique, Martinelli has been selling blueberry preserves made from his fruit in cooperation with another outfit since 1995. Starting in September, however, he will produce his preserves, sold under the Farmers’ Own label, at Rutgers University’s Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton. “We’re just giving blueberries to people in another way,” said Martinelli. “I’m really excited about it.”