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TRENTON, NJ — A severe winter, record snowfall, a normal, wet spring and slightly higher temperatures have blueberry growers throughout New Jersey seeing the blues — as in blueberries.

Some growers were expecting to begin picking the Duke variety as early as the weekend of June 5-6. Others said that the season is four to five days earlier than last year, and are advising retailers that there will be plenty of volume in time for the Fourth of July holiday.

Despite a May 10 frost that caused minimal damage on some Burlington County farms, the general consensus among the industry is that New Jersey will experience a normal season. While this year's crop might not break any volume records, it should be an exceptional crop in terms of quality and size. Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberries Inc. in Hammonton, NJ, said that despite a severe winter that saw record snowfall, the blueberry bushes came through with no damage.

"The prolonged snowfalls actually helped the plants," said Mr. Wetherbee. “In addition to providing a protective insulation, the snow brought extra nitrogen to the soil, which in turned helped produce strong, healthy bushes. New Jersey experienced a wetter-than-normal spring. That, combined with temperatures that moderately increased as the spring progressed, resulted in large blueberries that will be full of flavor.”

Mr. Wetherbee said that the Duke variety looks good, and the Bluecrop looks great. “Over all, New Jersey should have a better than normal year,” he concluded.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, New Jersey ranks second in the production of cultivated blueberries in the United States. In 2009, New Jersey growers harvested over 53 million pounds on 7,700 acres. The total crop was worth $65.2 million. Dennis Doyle, general manager at Atlantic Blueberry Co., also in Hammonton, shared Mr. Wetherbee’s optimistic observations.

“We are definitely looking at an earlier season, and so far this crop looks to be excellent in terms of size and quality,” said Mr. Doyle. “We have already noticed much interest from the trade, and pre-bookings have already surpassed last year.”

Mr. Doyle attributes the interest to several factors. “First, nothing beats a hand-harvested, cultivated blueberry. Secondly, New Jersey’s sandy acidic soil combined with our distinctive climate contributes to providing New Jersey blueberries with their unique taste,” he said. “As soon as New Jersey blueberries enter the market, there is a definite level of excitement among the trade for the eight to 10 weeks we are in season.”

Vincent Consalo, president of Wm. Consalo & Sons Farms in Vineland, NJ, attributes higher-than-normal pre-sales demand to strong consumer interest in locally grown products.

“We have noticed increased demand in the other New Jersey products we offer, and our customers are very much interested in meeting consumer demand for local, fresh New Jersey farm products,” Mr. Consalo said. “Because of the popularity of New Jersey blueberries, many consumers will buy one pint for immediate consumption and then a couple more for the freezer. This way, they can enjoy Jersey blueberries year round.”

Because of good industry demand, Mr. Consalo advised all buyers to keep in constant contact with their suppliers for up-to-date information.

Francisco Allende, general manager of Sunny Valley International, also is expecting a great season. He expected to begin picking the Duke variety on the weekend of June 5-6, and expected to pack between 60,000 and 70,000 flats during that first week. Like the others, Mr. Allende has noticed much pre-sale interest.

“We pride ourselves on customer service,” he said. “Consequently, we can respond to a customer’s demand and adjust our packingline to meet any specifications on packaging.”

He added, “We already have most of our early blues pre-booked, and we have noticed better-than-expected customer interest. When you start out the season with good business on the books from the beginning, typically it gets easier as the season progresses. For retailers, the huge volumes that will be available for July 4 will make it easy for them to enjoy exceptional promotional opportunities.”

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 multi-media 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, which will appear in major trade publications throughout June and into July, he added.

The council has worked with a media company to develop a 30-second radio commercial, which will alert listeners about the availability of Jersey blueberries. These ads will air in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and into New England.

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, 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. The council also will help sponsor regional blueberry promotions, festivals and activities throughout the state.

(For more on New Jersey blueberries, see the June 14, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)

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