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New Jersey blueberry growers anticipating normal year

by Al Murray | June 16, 2009
Continuing a series of successful growing seasons, New Jersey growers are anticipating more of the same for 2009.

In New Jersey, the term "normal season" has come to be characterized by strong consumer and industry demand, excellent volume and high quality, all backed up by a comprehensive advertising and promotional plan. With a world-renowned reputation for quality and taste, plus a string of consecutive successful growing seasons, New Jersey blueberry growers are already seeing great interest in this year's crop.

Early indications show that New Jersey growers expect this season to closely mirror the success seen in 2008. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistical reports show that last year New Jersey produced approximately 53 million pounds of blueberries grown on 7,600 acres. The value of the crop was $82 million. New Jersey is the second-largest producer of blueberries in the United States.

Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberry Inc. in Hammonton, NJ, said that his growers are expecting a good crop that is currently on schedule for harvest.

"The bushes came through the winter with no visible winter damage," Mr. Wetherbee said. "The next couple of weeks will determine when we harvest, but so far with everything currently on schedule, I'm pegging it for the week of June 15."

Once the season begins, Diamond Blueberry will initially offer the Weymouth variety, immediately followed by Dukes. Mr. Wetherbee expects the Bluecrop variety to begin harvest around July 1, winding up the season with Elliotts as they begin harvest the first week of August.

Art Galletta, co-owner and sales manager of Atlantic Blueberry Co. in Hammonton -- New Jersey's largest family-owned blueberry farm -- concured, and advised all buyers to keep in contact with suppliers for up-to- date information.

"We expect to match last year's volume," said Mr. Galletta. "We are very pleased with the season's progress thus far, as everything seems to be following a normal schedule."

Mr. Galletta predicted that demand would be high for New Jersey blueberries, particularly along the Atlantic Seaboard.

"The concept of locally grown has become very popular with consumers," he said. "As shoppers demand products from local farms, more and more retailers are looking toward the local deal to fill their shelves. New Jersey blueberries have always had a premier reputation, and this situation can only enhance their appeal to the retail, wholesale, and foodservice industries."

Francisco Allende, general manager of Sunny Valley International in Glassboro, NJ, which oversees sales for blueberries from the Jersey Fruit Cooperative Association, also agreed with the timing of the season.

"We expect to begin picking on June 15 with the first loads to be shipped" June 18 or June 19, he said. "A survey of our fields indicates our crop will probably equal last year's. We noticed the early Dukes are a little lighter than normal, but everything else looks good."

Mr. Allende added, "Our goal for the 2009 blueberry season is to introduce a traceability component to our products. We are working to implement a traceability program on our special clamshell packs and hope to have total traceability for all consumer packages next year."

Mr. Allende pointed out that Sunny Valley International can currently trace back to the flat (12-pint box).

Bob Consalo, vice president of Wm. Consalo & Sons Farms in Vineland, NJ, said that his customers are already anticipating the season.

"Everyone looks forward to the beginning of the New Jersey blueberry season," said Mr. Consalo. "So far we have already noticed much pre-season interest, and once volume begins, we expect orders to increase significantly." He added, "Due to the increase of demand we have experienced, this season we picked up additional acres of blueberries so that our volume can meet our customers' requirements."

David Arena, president of Frank Donio Inc. in Hammonton, shared Mr. Consalo's sentiments. Mr. Arena, whose company packs under the "Top Crop" label, said that he has been in constant contact with his growers. While visiting individual farms, he is very encouraged with what he sees in the fields.

"The berries are sizing up very nicely, and there's plenty of volume on the bushes," he said. "I think retailers are going to enjoy the promotional opportunities this season will bring."

In order to maintain consumer excitement for Jersey blueberries, the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council will be promoting the state's blueberries throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

Mr. Wetherbee, who serves as chairman of the Council, announced that the group has organized an aggressive marketing campaign intended to create trade and consumer awareness and demand for New Jersey blueberries. Designed to complement the New Jersey Department of Agriculture's Jersey Fresh advertising and promotional program, the council will use this highly successful brand image to benefit the promotion of blueberries to consumers long aware of Jersey Fresh.

"The Jersey Fresh blueberry promotional plan will be a multimedia advertising effort that will include trade print ads, retail point-of-purchase materials, radio advertising and consumer promotions," Mr. Wetherbee said.

The council has purchased space for blueberry ads, and the ads will appear in major trade publications throughout June and into July, he noted.

The council has worked with a media company to develop a 30-second radio commercial, which will alert listeners about the availability of Jersey Fresh blueberries. These ads will air in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and into New England. The ads are expected to begin the week of June 15 and will run throughout the entire month of July.

To help consumers identify New Jersey-grown blueberries, Jersey Fresh price cards have been developed and will be distributed through retail markets.

The council also is working with the northern New Jersey-based retail chain Kings Super Markets Inc., which runs a highly successful cooking school. The Council is sponsoring a blueberry program in the school so that participants may learn how to use New Jersey blueberries in their cooking. Additionally, the council will help sponsor regional blueberry promotions, festivals and activities throughout the state.

(Al Murray is New Jersey's assistant secretary of agriculture.)

(For more on the New Jersey blueberry deal, see the June 15 issue of The Produce News.)