HAMMONTON, N.J. -- Jeanne Lindsay often apologizes for the semiwild 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, 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 -- with 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 take their children.
"Some people come just for the Rancocas," Lindsay said. "They're good pie berries."
From late June until the end of July, the corner of south Jersey, known as the Pinelands, is the blueberry epicenter of the eastern United States; the 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture in nearby Chatsworth, N.J.
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 consumers take the time to drive the smaller byways of the Pinelands -- a seven-county area that includes 1 million government-preserved acres of pitch pine and white cedar and a fine-grained soil called sugar sand -- they can still find plenty of less conventional blueberries, and smaller farms, like Lindsay's.
One of those is Stevens Blueberries, a 7-acre commercial operation at the end of a white sand road deep in the pine forests of New Lisbon, N.J.. When Richard and Connie Stevens bought their farm in the 1980s, it came with a blueberry hoeing machine made from Ford Model A parts. Richard 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, along with a few Rancocas that are off limits.
"They're my mom's pride and joy," the younger Stevens said. "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 U.S. fruit foraged like ramps or morels. White made taming the Northern highbush berries in her woods her life's work and made U.S. 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 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.
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 & Co., the former department store on Fifth Avenue.
A few miles west of Whitesbog, N.J., 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. 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 customers 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.
Detrick said the cooperative told him he could make $1,000 an acre, although he's quick to add that he never has.
Stevens Blueberries also straddles old and new. The younger 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.
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, 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," 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 Nursery in Chatsworth, N.J. 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," Paluszak said. "I've gotten to the point where I don't even eat refrigerated berries."
The annual blueberry festival is held at the historic Whitesbog Village, N.J., in late June.
SundayMonday Business on 07/08/2018
Print Headline: Blueberry growers thrive in south Jersey