How New Jersey Tamed The Wild Blueberry For Global Production

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Final inspection of frozen blueberries at the Atlantic Blueberry Co. (NPR)
Final inspection of frozen blueberries at the Atlantic Blueberry Co. (NPR)

Nearly every plant that we now depend on for food — from wheat to beans to tomatoes — comes from ancestors that once grew wild on hills and in forests.

In most cases, we don't know who, exactly, tamed those plants. We don't know which inventive farmer, thousands of years ago, first selected seeds and planted them for food.

The blueberry, though, is different. We know exactly who brought it in from the wild, and where.

It happened in the pine barrens of New Jersey.

This land is called barren for a reason. "It's sandy soils, acidic soils, tough conditions," says Mark Ehlenfeldt, a blueberry breeder with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It's not suitable for most agriculture, short of cranberries and blueberries."

Mark Ehlenfeldt, a USDA blueberry breeder, in a century-old planting of Rubel blueberries in Whitesbog.
Mark Ehlenfeldt, a USDA blueberry breeder, in a century-old planting of Rubel blueberries in Whitesbog.

Ehlenfeldt and I are standing in a tiny, historic settlement called Whitesbog. It's a kind of time capsule from a century ago. There are dirt paths and a few old buildings, their sides made of plain, weathered, wooden shingles.

When these buildings were erected, the White family owned this land. They were Quakers. Joseph White was a big landowner. He grew cranberries. His oldest daughter was named Elizabeth.

"I always describe her as the son he never had. When he rode around with his superintendent, she was the one who rode with them on the wagon. She was very interested in the farm work," Ehlenfeldt says.

She was also alert to new possibilities for this farm. In 1910, when she was 39 years old, she came across a report about blueberries from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from a botanist named Frederick Coville.

Coville had been investigating the wild blueberries that grew near his family's vacation home in New Hampshire. He'd figured out, for instance, why wild blueberries usually didn't prosper when people tried to grow them at home, in gardens. Blueberries, he reported, need acidic soils — very different from most food crops.

The report suggested that farmers might be able to use this knowledge to grow blueberries as a crop. And it got Elizabeth White's attention. She sat down and wrote a letter to Coville's boss at the USDA. She made sure to keep a carbon copy of this letter; she kept it in a fireproof safe for years afterward.

Elizabeth Coleman White inspects a blueberry bush in Whitesbog, N.J., date unknown. White began working with blueberries in 1911.
Elizabeth Coleman White inspects a blueberry bush in Whitesbog, N.J., date unknown. White began working with blueberries in 1911.

Elizabeth White offered to pay the USDA to carry out additional blueberry experiments on her family's farm. She wrote that this land would be "admirably suited to blueberries, judging by the way the wild ones flourish" in the pine forests nearby. These were tall, "high-bush" blueberries.

Within months, Frederick Coville, the botanist, came to Whitesbog to start the work. Elizabeth White sent word to local people who knew the forests that she would pay generously for any bushes with especially large berries.

The pine people, as they were known, located 100 promising blueberry bushes.
White named each one for the person who found it: Harding, Hanes, Rubel. (Rubel was actually found by a man named Rube Leek. White didn't think she should use Leek as a blueberry name, and "Rube" didn't seem polite, so they settled on "Rubel.")

Coville figured out how to take cuttings from these bushes and grow new ones. These were clones of the original. "You could take that single bush and make 100 bushes. You could make 1,000 bushes. 10,000 bushes. And they would all be uniform," says Ehlenfeldt.

A few of those bushes were great berry producers. In fact, some of them still are growing here in a field at Whitesbog, right where they were planted 100 years ago, and they're still putting out berries.

Blueberries wait for processing at the Atlantic Blueberry Co. packing facility in Hammonton, N.J.
Blueberries wait for processing at the Atlantic Blueberry Co. packing facility in Hammonton, N.J.

But Coville also used these native bushes to start breeding. He cross-pollinated them, collected the seeds and grew them, selecting new bushes from among the offspring that produced the biggest and best crop of berries.

Elizabeth White described this work, years later, as a "joyous memory." She wrote that "encouraging developments came thick and fast. Dr. Coville and I gloated over them together, the enthusiasm of each fanning to brighter flame that of the other."

In 1916, they had a totally different kind of blueberry harvest to sell: large berries that all looked and tasted the same.

The blueberry had been tamed. A new business was born.

And in recent years, it's turned into a global phenomenon.

Part of the fresh blueberry packing line at the Atlantic Blueberry Co.
Part of the fresh blueberry packing line at the Atlantic Blueberry Co.

I got a small taste of that growth at the Atlantic Blueberry Co. of Hammonton, N.J., a town that calls itself the Blueberry Capital Of the World. The Galleta family started this business with four acres of blueberries in 1936. Today, the company is still family owned, but its fields cover more than 1,000 acres.

Thousands of tons of blueberries flow through the packing house here during the two-month harvest. A river of blue flows underneath a video camera, which can detect any berries that aren't quite blue enough. A computer instantly activates air jets that blow the not-quite-ripe berry out of the stream.

"If it's red or green, it's coming out!" shouts Denny Doyle, the company's general manager, over the din of equipment.

Some berries go into boxes and straight off to the supermarket. Others go into a supercharged cooler, where it's 15 degrees below zero.

"Within 30 to 60 seconds, it'll start freezing the berries," says Doyle. "I'm running 80-mile-an-hour winds in there. It's very turbulent in there."

Even though Atlantic Blueberry's production has grown, demand for blueberries has grown even faster.

A few decades ago, plant breeders in Florida created new kinds of high-bush blueberries that could grow in warmer climates. Blueberry production spread from its traditional sites in New Jersey and Michigan to Florida, Georgia, California and Oregon.

Jim Hancock, a blueberry breeder at Michigan State University, watched this growth in amazement. "I couldn't believe that this could be sustained," he says. "And it's never diminished."

North American consumers can now get fresh blueberries in winter. They grow in Chile and Peru. Europeans are now growing high-bush blueberries.

Just in the past 10 years, global blueberry production has tripled. "It's become a world crop. It's huge!" says Hancock.

And no matter where they grow, these high-bush blueberries trace at least part of their ancestry to Whitesbog, and the enthusiasm of Elizabeth White and Frederick Coville.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's talk about those blueberries in your cereal this morning. You're surely not alone. Blueberries have become rock stars on the global market. Demand for them is soaring, and truth be told, blueberry lovers have a few people to thank. Blueberries generally grow wild in places like Maine, but the ones in your cereal that likely came from the store were grown on farms. And those farmed blueberries were created a hundred years ago by a government scientist in New Jersey. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Every plant that we now depend on for food - wheat, beans, the tomato - it came to us from ancestors that once grew wild on hills and in forests. We don't know who exactly tamed most of those plants, which ancient, inventive farmer first selected seeds and planted them for food. The blueberry, though, is different. We know exactly who brought it in from the wild and where. It happened here in the pine barrens of New Jersey. Mark Ehlenfeldt, a blueberry breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says this land is called barren for a reason.

MARK EHLENFELDT: It's sandy soils, acidic soils, tough conditions. It's not suitable for most agriculture, short of blueberries and cranberries.

CHARLES: We're standing in a small settlement called Whitesbog. It's a kind of time capsule from a century ago. There are dirt paths and a few old buildings, their sides covered with plain, weathered wooden shingles. When these buildings were first erected, the White family owned this land. They were Quakers. Joseph White was a big landowner. He grew cranberries. His oldest daughter was named Elizabeth.

EHLENFELDT: I always describe her as being the son he never had. When he went around with his superintendent, she was the one that, you know, rode around with them on the wagon. She was very interested in the farm work.

CHARLES: And she was alert to new possibilities for the farm. In 1910, when she was 39 years old, she came across a report about blueberries from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from a botanist named Frederick Coville. Colville'd been investigating the wild berries that grew near his family's vacation home in New Hampshire. He'd figured out, for instance, why wild blueberries usually didn't prosper when people brought them home and tried to grow them in their gardens. Blueberries, he reported, need acidic soils - very different from most food crops. The report suggested that farmers might be able to use this knowledge to grow blueberries as a crop, and it got Elizabeth White's attention. She sat down and wrote a letter to Coville's boss at the USDA. She made sure to keep a carbon copy of this letter. She kept it in a fireproof safe for years.

EHLENFELDT: You want to see the quote on the letter here?

CHARLES: Yeah (laughter).

EHLENFELDT: All right. Give me a second.

CHARLES: Ehlenfeldt pulls out a reproduction.

EHLENFELDT: Dear Sir, I recently received from Washington the reports on experiments in blueberry culture, which I've read with great interest, and I write to make a suggestion in regard to future experiments.

CHARLES: Elizabeth White offered to pay the USDA to carry out more blueberry experiments on her family's farm. She was pretty sure this would be a good place for them. After all, blue berries grew wild all around there. These were tall, so-called high-bush blueberries. Within months, Frederick Coville, the botanist, came to Whitesbog to start the work. Elizabeth White put out the word to local people who knew the forests - pine people, they were called. She offered good money for any bushes with especially large berries. The pine people located about a hundred promising bushes. White named each one for the person who found it - Harding, Hanes, Rubel. Coville figured out how to take cuttings from those bushes and grow new ones - clones of the original.

EHLENFELDT: You could take that single bush and make a hundred bushes. You could make a thousand bushes, you could make 10,000 bushes, and they would all be uniform.

CHARLES: A few of those bushes were great berry producers just as they were. In fact, some of them are still growing here, right where they were planted a hundred years ago, still putting out berries.

EHLENFELDT: This is a field that was planted to Rubels and Hardings. Look at the Rubels - the Rubels here.

CHARLES: Yeah, they're great.

EHLENFELDT: This bush right here is full of berries.

CHARLES: You could actually come out...

EHLENFELDT: You could actually come out here and pick several pints of fruit off of this, even in the condition that it's in right now.

CHARLES: But Coville also used those native plants to start breeding - cross-pollinating, collecting seeds, growing the offspring, selecting bushes with the biggest and best crop of berries. Elizabeth White described this work years later as a joyous memory. Encouraging developments came thick and fast, she wrote. Dr. Coville and I gloated over them together. In 1916, they had a totally different kind of blueberry harvest to sell - big berries that all looked and tasted the same. The blueberry had been tamed. A new business was born, and how that business has grown.

DENNY DOYLE: Here they come, in from the field.

CHARLES: Denny Doyle is the general manager at Atlantic Blueberry Company in Hammonton, N.J. We're standing on the loading dock of the packing house. In the distance, I see wide, flat fields with long lines of tall blueberry bushes. They're descendents of those bushes at Whitesbog.

DOYLE: This all started with four acres - 1936 - and just built all through the years.

CHARLES: We're coming to the end of harvest, a two-month flood of berries. Thousands of tons of them flood through this packing house. A river of blue flows underneath a video camera, and it can detect instantly any berries that aren't quite blue enough, not quite ripe.

DOYLE: These air jets will blow it out.

CHARLES: They can pick out one berry out of that?

DOYLE: Absolutely - one berry. Yeah. If it's green - if it's green or red, it's coming out.

CHARLES: Some berries go into boxes and straight off to the supermarket. Others go into a super cooler where it's 15 degrees below zero.

DOYLE: And it's freezing these berries. Within 30 to 60 seconds, it'll start freezing the berries. I'm running 80-mile-an-hour winds in there, blowing. It's very turbulent in there.

CHARLES: Atlantic Blueberry has grown fast, but demand for blueberries has grown even faster. A few decades ago, plant breeders in Florida created new kinds of high-bush blueberries that could grow in warmer climates. Blueberry production spread from New Jersey and Michigan to Florida, Georgia, California, Oregon. Jim Hancock, a blueberry breeder at Michigan State University, watched all this growth in amazement.

JIM HANCOCK: I couldn't believe that this could be sustained, and it's never diminished.

CHARLES: You can now get fresh blueberries in winter. They grow in Chile and Peru. Europeans are now growing high-bush blueberries. Just in the past 10 years, global blueberry production has tripled.

HANCOCK: It's become a world crop. It's huge. Yeah, it's huge.

CHARLES: And no matter where they grow, whether in Oregon or Peru, these high-bush blueberries trace at least part of our ancestry to Whitesbog and the enthusiasm of Elizabeth White and Frederick Coville. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.