Even During a Pandemic, the Jersey Blueberry Harvest Must Go On

Art Galletta of Hammonton's Atlantic Blueberry Co. discusses how the Garden State's blueberry industry is adapting to a new normal.

A bucket of fresh blueberries. Photo courtesy of Pexels

New Jersey is proud of our tomatoes, our corn, even our cranberries, but did you know we were once home to the largest blueberry farm in the world?  Technically speaking, Atlantic Blueberry Co. in Hammonton became the “largest highbush blueberry farm in the world” in 1979, when the farm acquired another property and rocketed up to 1,320 acres.

The title has since expired, but Atlantic Blueberry is still going strong. Founded in 1935, it’s still run by the same family—the Gallettas, an Italian family that came to America at the turn of the century and began farming blueberries and cranberries under a company called the Atlantic Company for the Culture of Cranberries. Two Galletta brothers—Duke and Bill—fell for the blueberry part of the cranberry operation, bought their own land in 1935, and began cultivating wild New Jersey blueberries for themselves. By 1949, they were able to buy that first farm out. Duke even has a blueberry variety named after him. “The USDA honored him by naming the variety after him,” says his son and current company president, Art Galletta.

Yet no matter how long they’ve been around (as part of a co-op, they’re sold under the Naturipe banner), it’s fair to say Atlantic Blueberry Co. has never seen an era quite like this one. And as the mid-June blueberry harvest approaches, and the company considers the logistics of employing close to 500 hand-harvesters, they’re facing questions of how to effectively, safely salvage New Jersey blueberries in the era of Covid-19.

We caught up with the current president, Art (who’s about to enjoy his 59th harvest on the farm) to ask how Atlantic Blueberry plans to approach the harvest this year.

Table Hopping: How long has your family been in the blueberry business?
Art Galletta: I’ve been doing this since I was eight. My dad and his brothers were the founders of the company. They worked in blueberries a little bit before 1935. The industry actually started with wild blueberry plants. They took them out of the woods and started cultivating those. That started around 1916, with the first commercial varieties available in 1918, 1920. My dad [Duke] worked on the Atlantic Company cranberry farm. The guy had blueberries to keep the men busy in the summer. My dad really liked those blueberries. He was interested in that.

TH: I read that Atlantic Blueberry became the “largest highbush blueberry farm in the world” when it reached 1,320 acres in 1979. Is that still the case?
AG: That’s no longer true. There’s a lot of corporate venture capital money out on the West Coast. They really planted huge acreages. But we’re the biggest in New Jersey, and probably the biggest on the East Coast.

TH: When is the blueberry harvest?
AG: We’re just now getting done with the bloom period. The flowers will turn into blueberries. There’s little bitty green berries on some of the early varieties right now. As they size up, they’ll start to turn blue. The harvest itself begins around June 15.

TH: How many people do you hire for your harvest?
AG: Any given year we’ll have 450 to 500 people here to pick blueberries. Hand-harvesting is gentler on the bush, and it’s more selective. You get more yield and since it’s hand-picked, the berries aren’t banged up as much. It’s generally better quality. Today’s machines are getting better at picking, but they’re still color-blind.

TH: Given the coronavirus, are you able to, or interested in, incorporating automation into the harvest?
AG: We actually own a lot of machines. We could pick the entire crop by machine, but we choose not to because we can get better yields generally and better quality by hand. So far, that’s a better investment. Technology is starting to come out for better harvesting by machine, better sorting equipment by machine. We’re in a transformation to machinery, no question. It’s only a matter of time.

TH: This year, at least, you’re getting ready to host human workers. And it’s a pandemic. What are your plans?
AG: Our harvesters generally come up from Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. So far, where they’ve been haven’t been hot spots.

TH: Nobody has reservations about coming up to New Jersey?
AG: We’ve been depending on them coming up and it looks like they’re coming up. But we’re taking all the protocols seriously. We’ll be incorporating mandatory temperature scanning, social distancing, all the CDC guidelines. We already had things in place before this particular season, good agricultural practices as part of a daily routine that are designed to reduce the spread of any virus. But we’re going to augment those with other protocols: face masks, testing employees when they arrive with nasal swabs, things of that nature. We want a safe workplace for them. They’re essential to us and we value them. Of course, it’s going to be a challenge. We want to make sure that off work hours, they remain safe, don’t go into town and come back with something.

TH: How long will you be hosting them?
AG: Hand-harvesting lasts six or seven weeks, starting in mid-June through the later part of July. A lot of them live on the property, but there’s a good percentage that come in every day from outside areas. So we’ll have to make sure everyone stays safe.

TH: You mentioned “nasal swabs.” Does that mean you’ll be testing pickers for Covid-19?
AG: Yes. We’re working with an organization that’s local here, called South Jersey Family Medicine. They plan to come out here as employees show up and sign up for work. They’ll do a nasal swab. There’s a 24-hour turnaround on that test. We’re really grateful they’re going to come out here and do that.

TH: Workers will also be together, indoors, sorting the blueberries. Do you have plans in place for the sorting phase?
AG: Yes, we’re putting up plexiglass for the workers, to keep them apart. On the actual inspection belt, there’s plenty of room to maintain appropriate social distance. It’s pretty involved. We’re not quite done doing the protocols, still waiting for the State Department of Health to issue their final guidelines.

TH: Are you concerned about finding buyers for the berries?
AG: It’s been a little challenging in the marketplace. Stores aren’t operating at full capacity obviously. But the market seems pretty good now, it’s bounced back a bit. In March it was horrible. Right now, it seems to be getting a bit better.

TH: You also just reopened the retail store. How is that working? Are people coming?
AG: We have some frozen berries we sell. We discontinued the retail store for a while, but we set it up so it’s a no-contact situation. People actually do come up and come in, wearing face masks. There’s a shield in front of the register. They can purchase a box of frozen berries. And there’s some honey from our local beekeepers. We try to help support them.

TH: What’s your overall outlook for the Jersey blueberry harvest?
AG: We’re cautiously optimistic. It’ looks like we have a decent crop on the bush right now. We just need to get [the harvest] done well. People need nice, healthy food to eat in New Jersey. And it’s locally grown.

Assuming the harvest goes as planned—and it sounds meticulously, conscientiously planned—Atlantic Blueberry berries should be available in “grocery chains and big box stores all over the country,” says Art. “When you Naturipe berries that have ‘New Jersey’ on them, chances are good they come from us.” Atlantic Blueberry also has their own label. “We sell to local farm markets and customers at our retail store,” which reopened to the public on a limited customer basis on May 11. Atlantic Blueberry Co., 7201 Weymouth Road, Hammonton; 609-561-8600

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