Pondering the future of a heritage dairy in Costa Rica is our 2018 summer pastime. The future of a heritage berry is a welcome distraction. With more moms like Jeanne Lindsay and more sons like Richard Stevens Jr. we can trust that the uniquely North American flavor produced on this farm is in good hands. Thanks to Rachel Wharton:
In the Shadow of the Blueberry Titans, Smaller Growers Thrive
The cultivated blueberry was born in South Jersey, and today its heirloom descendants can still be found on little farms sprinkled among the big producers.
HAMMONTON, N.J. — Jeanne Lindsay often apologizes for the semi-wild state of her pick-your-own blueberry patch, which she runs on the farm her in-laws started in 1941.
It’s no wonder: Since her husband died four years ago, Mrs. Lindsay, 75, has to manage the 16-acre homestead mostly by herself. It doesn’t help that she tends to compare her 65-year-old plants — antique blueberry breeds like juicy Weymouths, Jerseys tall enough to provide shade and six tart-fruited Rancocas — to the perfectly trimmed bushes at her neighbor’s giant farm across the street.
Yet it’s precisely the old-fashioned imperfections of Lindsay’s Farm that make its moss-carpeted rows worth the trip for regulars, many of whom now bring their children.
“Some people come just for the Rancocas,” Mrs. Lindsay said. “They’re good pie berries.”
From late June until the end of July, this corner of South Jersey, known as the Pinelands, is the blueberry epicenter of the Eastern United States; this flat region of sandy soils is where commercial cultivation of the berries began a century ago. Today, New Jersey’s blueberry crop remains the fifth-largest in the nation by acreage, eclipsed in recent years by those of states (like Washington and Georgia) with more land for growers to expand into, said Mark Ehlenfeldt, a blueberry breeding specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture in nearby Chatsworth.
Most of New Jersey’s blueberries are now cultivated on vast farms with hundreds of acres, which normally grow just three high-yield varieties that can withstand machine picking and shipping: Dukes in June, Bluecrops by July, then smaller, tarter Elliots to finish the season.
But if you take the time to drive the smaller byways of the Pinelands — a seven-county area that includes a million government-preserved acres of pitch pine, white cedar and a fine-grained soil called sugar sand — you can still find plenty of less conventional blueberries, and smaller farms, like Mrs. Lindsay’s.
One of those is Stevens Blueberries, a seven-acre commercial operation at the end of a white sand road deep in the pine forests of New Lisbon. When Richard and Connie Stevens bought their farm in the 1980s, it came with a blueberry hoeing machine made from Ford Model A parts. Mr. Stevens was then in the military, working nearby at what was then McGuire Air Force Base.
The farm is now run by their 38-year-old son, Richard Stevens Jr.; the family sells its crop to a packer, but also allows customers to pick their own berries. They still grow mostly what was planted there in 1951, said the son, offering a taste of Elizabeths, Stanleys, Weymouths, Berkeleys, Blue Crops and Jerseys, plus a few Rancocas that are off-limits.
“They’re my mom’s pride and joy,” said the younger Mr. Stevens. “We’re not allowed to touch them.”
These breeds were also the pride and joy of Elizabeth Coleman White, a cranberry farmers’ daughter who worked with government researchers to establish the commercial blueberry industry in 1916. Until then, blueberries were a wild thing, an indigenous American fruit foraged like ramps or morels. White made taming the Northern highbush berries in her woods her life’s work, and made American agricultural history in the process…
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