Dispatches TM_DP_BLUEB_FI_002

Americans love a blueberry festival. This year, they’ll celebrate the small fruit in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, Washington, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Maine. In states red and blue, blueberry fans will pick blueberries, eat blueberry cakes, drink blueberry milkshakes, watch blueberry pie-eating contests, buy blueberry art, and run blueberry 5Ks to celebrate nature’s synchronous gifts of berries and summer.

But only one state — and one festival — celebrates the birth of the blueberry as we know it. Which is why, one late June Saturday, cars full of blueberry fans lined up deep in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. They drove slowly down a sandy road, single-file, under a baking sun. They bounced over ruts and passed bogs covered with blooming water lilies. They parked in an even sandier lot; boarded hot, cramped school buses; and bounced even higher over more ruts to get to Whitesbog Village: the “Birthplace of the Highbush Blueberry.”

To be sure, the blueberry wasn’t actually born at Whitesbog. According to Robert E. Gough’s The Highbush Blueberry and Its Management, members of the blueberry genus developed more than 100 million years ago; when the last ice sheets disappeared from Eastern North America 12,000 years ago, blueberries thrived and became a favorite food of both Native Americans and the new colonists from Europe.

But for much of its long life, the blueberry was a wild fruit. The millennia-long march of agriculture didn’t conquer the blueberry until early in the 20th century. In 1906, U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist Frederick Coville began research on the fruit that would quickly lead to its domestication and the development of the cultivated blueberry plant. He teamed up with Elizabeth White, whose family had been growing cranberries at Whitesbog since 1857. Inspired by Coville’s Experiments in Blueberry Culture, White began paying local residents to bring her wild plants with large berries. She supplied Coville many of the plants he used in his hybridization experiments at Whitesbog; the key to successful blueberry cultivation, it turned out, was the acidity of soil in place like the sandy Pine Barrens. Success soon followed: In 1916, Coville and White produced the first commercial blueberry crop. The highbush blueberry (taller than the lowbush variety found farther north in Maine and Canada’s Maritime provinces) quickly spread beyond New Jersey.

The rest is history. Or rather, the invisibility of history, as the blueberry is today so common that it’s hard to imagine that it ever had to be domesticated. Whitesbog recovers that history. Today, a nonprofit trust preserves the company town: Visitors can explore Elizabeth White’s house, the town’s general store, and cranberry bogs and blueberry fields; they can see antique engines and ice-harvesting tools.

Like the plant it celebrates, the 30th annual Whitesbog Blueberry Festival was a hybrid. It offered visitors those amenities common to all festivals, blueberry and otherwise: crafters sold candles and jewelry and dog sweaters. Kids could have their faces painted to look like pirates, and everyone could listen to bluegrass and Celtic music throughout the day. The Vegetarian Society of South Jersey set up a table where visitors could join its mailing list, and the South Jersey Ghost Research group talked about its work and sold bottled water for $1. At one tent, Lyme disease educators passed out tick identification cards with tips for safe tick removal.

But the Festival also featured plenty of blueberryana. An Elizabeth White reenactor led visitors on a tour of White’s house, Suningive. The Whitesbog Preservation Trust sold blueberry plants and took visitors on a wagon out to blueberry fields. In the afternoon, Dr. Mark Ehlenfeldt gave a talk: “A Pictorial Tour of the Modern Blueberry Industry.” Ehlenfeldt is a USDA research plant geneticist who works at the Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research & Extension in Chatsworth, New Jersey, as part of a partnership with the USDA’s Genetic Improvement for Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland (whose slogan, according to its website, seems to be the provocative but unlyrical “Development of germplasm for high value small-fruits and vegetables”).

Visitors to Whitesbog curious about the state of the modern blueberry industry filed into the site’s former barrel factory at noon. Folding chairs and loud fans had been set up. The topic was popular, and Ehlenfeldt’s talk quickly became standing-room-only. The scientist — responsible for such blueberry varieties as Razz, Pink Lemonade, and Blue Suede — covered the facts and figures surrounding blueberry production in the 21st century. Georgia, for example, has passed New Jersey in total blueberry production as more farmers there switch from tobacco to berries. China is quickly becoming a world player. And machines are replacing human labor in the harvesting, sorting, and packing of berries.

Perhaps most significant to the modern blueberry industry, berry consumption is rising, though not as much as the modern blueberry industry would like. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, per capita consumption of fresh and processed blueberries is 2.2 pounds; the USDA reports that per capita consumption of fresh strawberries, in contrast, was 7.34 pounds in 2011.

“Why do you think blueberries can’t catch up to strawberries?” one woman in the audience asked Ehlenfeldt.

“Well, strawberries are in everything,” he replied. “Most of you probably have strawberry jam at home, but how many of you have blueberry jam?”

The woman who asked the question raised her hand. “Actually, I have three kinds of blueberry jam,” she said.

“Yes, well…” Ehlenfeldt said, trailing off. A blueberry festival, it turned out, was not the place to let the supremacy of strawberries speak for itself.

In 2003, the Whitesbog Preservation Trust recreated the blueberry demonstration site that Elizabeth White developed alongside her home, a few yards from the center of the village. Here, White raised the different blueberry varieties collected and developed with Coville. Visitors are allowed to sample the berries from ‘June’ and ‘Katherine’ plants, among others. This provides a kind of blueberry taste-test that one doesn’t find in supermarkets or even local farmer’s market, where — unlike apples or tomatoes — blueberries are sold simply as “blueberries.” The berry spectrum is on full display here, reflecting wide ranges of color, firmness, tartness, sweetness, and size.

It was difficult to spend too much time at the demonstration site the day of the blueberry festival. White’s house sits next to marshy forest, and the mosquitoes swarmed anyone who lingered too long by any one plant. It was better in the village itself, where the only difficult nature visitors faced was an unrelenting sun and the endless sand that stuck to sweaty ankles.

Nature is uncomfortable at Whitesbog, but it’s also what distinguishes this particular celebration of the blueberry. Here, mosquitoes, sun, sand, cars, school bus shuttles, and USDA scientists all meet up. Here, where the blueberry was “born,” nature and culture don’t just overlap: They disappear into one another. Whitesbog reveals to visitors that the blueberry — and, by extension, all the foods we eat — have complex pasts, presents, and futures. In a culture that celebrates the purity of “farm to table” eating, Whitesbog reminds us that the farm and the table are just part of the story.

Feature image by S. in the Midwest via Flickr (Creative Commons). All other photos by Rachel Wisniewski.

Comments

  1. Ann says:

    Thanks for this story! I grew up picking blueberries at a local farm in Washington State, and the farm then offered me first job at age 12 – picking flats full of blueberries. I learned to distinguish between the different varieties, but never learned the history…until now. An interesting read.

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