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Sunny Valley out of the gate with early N.J. blueberry crop

by Christina DiMartino | June 13, 2010
The New Jersey blueberry deal is off to an early start thanks to favorable weather, according to officials at Sunny Valley International Inc.

"Crews started picking a few organic blueberries today at Big Buck Farms in Hammonton, New Jersey," Phil Neary director of operations and grower relations for Sunny Valley International Inc., headquartered in Glassboro, NJ, told The Produce News June 2.

"Big Buck started with the Duke variety. The plants have gotten a little more mature, which, combined with the great weather we've had, have helped to bring the crop on earlier than normal. Harvesting started 10 days earlier than last year, and last year was on the early side."

Mr. Neary added that Sunny Valley's largest blueberry grower, and some smaller producers, are also located in Hammonton, which typically has an earlier start than other areas of the state.

Following the Duke harvest, Big Buck Farms will move into the Bluecrop and then the Elliott varieties. This is the first year the company is picking the Elliott, a late blueberry variety which will help to extend the season. Depending on the weather, movement is expected to go through the first week of August.

Sunny Valley is the exclusive distributor for the Jersey Fruit Cooperative Association Inc., which is also headquartered in Glassboro. Mr. Neary is the marketing director for the organization.

Although Big Buck Farms is a member of the Jersey Fruit cooperative, its blueberries are labeled "Little Buck Organics" to distinguish the product from conventional blueberries.

Conventional blueberries carry the "Jersey Fruit" label.

Mr. Neary said that the Jersey Fruit co-op has made a couple of major changes this season.

"On the packaging level, Jersey Fruit made the decision to redesign its labels," he said. "The graphics are more colorful and attractive, but an important part of the redesign is the addition of a 2D code on the labels. These codes provide traceability right down to the clamshell level. Jersey Fruit now uses 'GS1 DataBar' manufacturers' codes instead of generic UPC codes for blueberries."

The scanable 2D codes enable Sunny Valley to trace a clamshell pack of blueberries back to the lot number, which then reveals the grower, the field they came from, the variety, the day they were picked and the day they were packed.

"We are using the 2D code on labels for Costco in compliance with the traceability program the company has implemented," Mr. Neary added. "In addition, we are doing some pilot testing for new labeling for our other growers. Some growers get their clamshells prelabeled, so we are testing a program that would enable them to adapt to the new code."

Other news from the Jersey Fruit co-op is its new pint box, also with new labeling, which the company is now launching.

Sunny Valley also announced another significant change this season. Mr. Neary said that a number of the company's growers now have new cooling procedures in place.

"The berries are pre-cooled in the picking flats, which removes some of the excess heat from the fruit," he said. "Then they are kept in an air-conditioned packinghouse. From there they are moved to the final cooling process and stored, ready to be loaded onto trucks. This is the optimum cooling process for blueberries. About 90 percent of our Jersey blueberries will be handled in this manner this year. Three of our growers have made major investments for this cooling process to insure that we will pick, pack and ship the best quality blueberries possible."

Mr. Neary said that the New Jersey blueberry crop this year is outstanding in quality. Although it's not a bumper crop, it is a good, solid crop in volume.

"We expect the conventional crop of blueberries to also run into August this year, weather permitting," he said. "The peak will run from June 12 to July 15-20. This is a great promotional opportunity for retailers."

The Jersey Fruit co-op is a long established grower that has enjoyed a strong reputation for peaches over the years, but customers now also recognize it for its blueberry production.

"Despite that North Carolina is still running strong with blueberries, the interest from retailers in New Jersey blueberries is already very strong, and orders are coming in," stated Mr. Neary. "The Jersey Fresh locally grown program helps the demand for New Jersey blueberries. We participate strongly in the campaign, and all of our packaging has the 'Jersey Fresh' logo printed on the labels."