The New Jersey blueberry crop promised to rank in the bumper category at the start of the season, but grower-shippers said the last half of the season was a disappointment.
“Our early variety, duke, was very good and had good size,” said Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberry Inc., Hammonton, N.J. “Picking broke records on several days.”
The late-season blue crop variety has dampened spirits. The bushes didn’t pollinate as well as the grower-shippers had anticipated, Wetherbee said. As a result, he said the harvest will wrap up sooner than its traditional early August finish.
Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J., anticipated it would be out of blueberries by the end of July, said Phil Neary, director of operations and grower relations.
The lower production of the blue crop will likely mean overall volume will be down considerably this year, Wetherbee said. There is one consolation for grower-shippers. Fewer processors are operating in New Jersey, Wetherbee said, and that means most of the berries went to the fresh market, which fetches higher prices.
The end of the New Jersey season does not dictate the end of blueberries this year for Sunny Valley. The company will begin to import berries from Argentina in late September or early October, Neary said.
Weather permitting, it could bring in limited supplies from Chile beginning in October. The Argentine season will run almost to the end of the year, he said, while the Chilean season will continue well into next year, he said.
The imported Sunny Valley berries arrive by plane rather than aboard ship, Neary said, an expensive proposition.
“Airfreight as a proportion of the total cost is huge,” he said.
Neary’s chores are not limited to his Sunny Valley duties. He chairs the policy committee for the National Berry Crops Initiative. In that capacity, his near-term goals include trying to get an answer from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration why the agency grouped all berries as a risk crop.
“There is no documented national food safety issue with blueberries,” Neary said.
He plans to keep that record intact. Sunny Valley has been active since the New Jersey blueberry industry launched a food safety program 12 years ago, Neary said.
The program continues to evolve.
Already in place industrywide is an accounting system that offers traceability down to the farm, the field and the date picked. This year, Neary said, the industry is testing methods that can trace a problem down to the clamshell level.
“All of this technology required a substantial investment for grower-shippers and packers,” Neary said.