When it comes to cultivating blueberries for the commercial market, Elizabeth Coleman White is the undisputed queen. Working with Frederick Vernon Coville of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, White grew and harvested the first crop of cultivated blueberries in 1916 on her family’s cranberry farm in Whitesbog. That’s the first cultivated crop in the United States and most likely the rest of the world.
White was not an unlettered woman. After graduating from the Friends Central School in Philadelphia, she went to work in the bogs helping supervise cranberry pickers at her father’s farm. She continued her education during winter months, taking courses in first aid, photography, and millinery — among other subjects — at Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry (now Drexel University).
White wanted to cultivate and harvest the wild blueberries that grew around her family’s farm in the Pine Barrens. Specifically, she wanted to grow them in the land between the cranberry bogs in June and July to avoid any conflict with the fall cranberry harvest.
After reading Coville’s “Experiments in Blueberry Culture,” she persuaded him to help by offering her family farm’s unused land for his research. Coville provided the botanical knowledge; White was in charge of the land and finding wild blueberry bushes.
Choosing which blueberry bushes to cultivate was a complex matter, factoring in taste, color, shape, and how long they took to ripen. White recruited local woodsmen to help in the hunt, paying them $1 to $3 for every bush they found with berries that measured at least 5/8 inches. Those bushes were tagged for Coville to transplant and graft.
Their work paid off in 1916, when they successfully cultivated the first blueberry crop, selling it under the name Tru-Blu-Berries. It was White’s idea to package the berries in cellophane after seeing it used as a candy wrapper.
White was the first woman to become a member of the American Cranberry Association and the first woman to receive a citation from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. In 1927, she helped organize the New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative Association.
Given how carefully White and Coville proceeded with their experiments, they almost certainly took note of the size of their first commercial crop, but that information has been lost to memory’s blueberry-colored fog. What is known, however, is the fruit’s importance to New Jersey’s economy. They were the state’s No. 1 crop in 2018, with a production value of more than $62 million. In 2019, New Jersey harvested 44 million pounds of blueberries on 9,000 acres.