New Jersey blueberries looking at strong finish
- by Gordon M. Hochberg | July 22, 2020
The 2020 New Jersey blueberry season, which should conclude around the first week in August, has been marked by good berry sizing and excellent quality, and volume should end up fairly close to the state’s five-year average, according to a key official with the state’s blueberry industry.
« The season started June 15 this year, which is a few days later than normal, » Denny Doyle, chairman of the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council, told The Produce News Tuesday, July 21. « We kind of expected that. We had some cold weather in April, and we expected a little bit of a delay. »
But the berries came on pretty quickly. « We were well into the crop as quick as the 20th [of June]. It only takes us a few days to get ramped up and get into stride. »
Asked when he thought the season would conclude, he said, « I would estimate two weeks, » or around the first week in August. « We have the later varieties that they’re starting to get into. There isn’t a lot of acreage on that, so we should complete the harvest within two weeks, » which would be very close to normal. « That’s looking very good. I think we’re going to have a nice strong finish. »
Demand is always strong for New Jersey blueberries, and this season is no exception.
As Joe Atchison III, director of marketing and development for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, put it, « Because there were clearly defined lines between the time that Southern states finished harvesting, and prior to some Northern states beginning their harvests, there was very little overlap with New Jersey’s blueberry harvest. Therefore, demand has been very good for blueberries from the Garden State this season. »
On the subject of volume, Doyle said, « We ramped up to close to normal levels after our first week, and we maintained good volume straight through. Of course, our volume has reduced now, but we’re still at a steady pace. »
He added, « We’re pretty much on target of the five-year average, or down slightly from the five-year average, the way it looks right now. We’ll have a much better handle on that the second week in August when all the numbers come in. »
New Jersey’s five-year average is around 37 million pounds to 39 million pounds, according to Doyle, who has been in the produce industry for over half a century.
Asked how the weather affected New Jersey blueberries during this season, he replied, « As most people know, we went through Tropical Storm Fay, » which hit New Jersey around July 10-11 with heavy rains. « That was disruptive especially in the Hammonton area. But we got through it, we pushed through it, » he stated. « Of course, we’re going through a very hot spell now. But with our volume coming down, we’re well under control. It’s not unusual for us in New Jersey to go through these ups and downs on the weather. »
Blueberries are one of New Jersey’s signature items, so quality is especially important.
« I would say our quality was excellent throughout the year, » the executive declared. « I really do. The sizing on the Dukes was generally medium to large. Our midseason varieties came in very large, which is good. And it looks like our late-season varieties are sizing up very well. »
New Jersey blueberries are marketed « up and down the East Coast and into eastern Canada, » noted Atchison.
This includes « the metropolitan areas of Baltimore, New York, Boston and Connecticut, » added Doyle. « We’ll go as far as Indianapolis, we go into Canada quite a bit. That’s generally our range. »
Most of New Jersey’s blueberries go to big box stores and a variety of traditional retailers in those areas, noted Doyle, as well as to farmstands and farmers markets. « We cover most of the farmstands in New Jersey, the Lancaster, PA, and Philadelphia areas, » he said. « We cover all that. That’s a strong market for us. »
Atchison added, « Whether they are a supermarket, farmers market, community farmers market or a roadside stand, retailers of all types source and offer bigger, better more flavorful ‘Jersey Fresh’ blueberries. »
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture has long played an important role in helping to promote the state’s agricultural bounty, including blueberries.
Asked about the department’s activities this season, Atchison replied that the department « worked to complement the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council’s marketing efforts with our own billboards, radio ads and social media content promoting ‘Jersey Fresh’ blueberries. Due to COVID-19, the council adjusted much of its marketing to online and social media ads to reach highly targeted consumers on their laptops, tablets and mobile devices through June and the Fourth of July. »
He continued, « The NJDA dovetailed in early July with more traditional media as people returned to New Jersey’s busy roadways. »
Doyle elaborated on how New Jersey blueberry growers have been dealing with the COVID-19 situation.
« We knew we had to do new and special things, » he stated. « And I’m very proud of our Jersey growers. Before the season started, we got together, the growers and myself, and we talked about this, that we were going to have to do new and novel things — following the CDC recommendations [and those from] our Department of Health. »
He continued, « We brought all these partners in to discuss what our best action would be. And the growers embraced that. We had medical teams going out to farms to check all the workers for their safety. And they did a beautiful job. They tested the workers and the owners. I was tested. So we were very proactive at this. And we took it very seriously. And I think it really paid off. »
Also, « The growers did a great job in their packinghouses, putting up shields and dividers, especially on the sorting lines. I think that really helped our situation immensely. »
Doyle, 71, was named chairman of the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council at the end of 2017, following the death on Nov. 8, 2017, of Tim Wetherbee, who had served as chairman for many, many years. Doyle had served as vice chairman of the blueberry council for 20 years before being named chairman.
Asked to comment on the overall importance of blueberries in the Garden State, Doyle said, « They’re a big portion of the agricultural products that the state produces. We do have a very large blueberry industry, a peach industry, a vegetable industry, a cranberry industry and a nursery industry. The agricultural [industry], mostly based in the southern portion of the state, is still very strong. It is family-owned type farms which we’re really proud of. »
(Seen above: Denny Doyle looking at some New Jersey blueberries on Tuesday, July 21.)