Blue Heaven

Picking (and purloining) blueberries in the Pine Barrens in July—priceless pleasure.

I can still taste the best blueberry I ever ate. It was big and squatly round and deep blue, with that periwinkle dusting that the ripest blueberries have. And it was stolen. It went directly from the bush to my mouth, never to be weighed at the shed a quarter mile across the blueberry farm. Several more just like it met the same fate before I dropped one into the empty tomato can roped to my waist. The plump berry hit the metal bottom with a plink.

Blueberries never taste better than when plucked from the bush still warm from the sun, though wolfing them by the handful on the drive home comes a close second. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on produce purloining, but I’m going public because July is peak Pick Your Own season in the Pine Barrens, and picking blueberries is one of the best ways to spend a July day.

Early-maturing varieties like the Duke will be gone by July, when the most cultivated variety of blueberry in the world, the Bluecrop, comes into its own. You can pop these big boys into your mouth with pride, because they were bred in New Jersey. The variety was released in 1953 to a world not yet hip to the benefits of antioxidants—molecules with which the blueberry is well endowed.

According to Dr. Gary Pavlis, the Rutgers agricultural agent for Atlantic County, New Jersey has the largest single blueberry farm in the world—the 1,400-acre Atlantic Blueberry Company in Hammonton, run for three generations by the Galletta family. ABC doesn’t trifle with the picnicking PYO crowd, but smaller farms put hand-painted plywood PYO signs by the roadside. For them, PYO brings in quick cash, saves on labor (and visits from the state’s Department of Labor, concerned about migrant workers), and cuts out  middlemen—brokers, who don’t have to pay the farmer until the   crop is sold and who may not want to deal with small fry anyway.

So PYO farmers will be glad to hand you a bucket and point you to the ripest part of the field. An hour or two of leisurely picking has much to recommend it.

  • A blueberry field is heaven. The sandy soil is soft underfoot, and the bushes are planted in close rows so that a family can stay near enough to carry on a conversation, yet each person will have plenty of berries to pick. Voices sound different in a blueberry field. Perhaps the sand and the shrubbery absorb sound, creating a cathedral-like silence broken only by occasional bird squawks and the plinking of berries into buckets.
  • No stooping, no ladders, no thorns. So-called high-bush blueberry plants, which grow to be five or six feet high, originated in New Jersey, says Pavlis, and the berries grow in grape-like, easily gathered clusters. Loosely encircle a bunch with your fingers and gently pull. See if you can resist popping the whole handful into your mouth.
  • In supermarkets,  an 8-ounce container of blueberries can cost $3 to $4. Last summer, the going rate for PYO was about $1.10 to $1.40 a pound. At prices like that, PYO blueberries are quite a bargain. You might even say they’re a steal.
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