State touts $84M blueberry industry during National Blueberry Month

The state’s blueberries will end up in fruit salads and smoothies across the country. It’s an $84 million a year business and last year was New Jersey’s biggest crop.

Paul Macrie’s family has been growing them for more than 60 years.

“The soil is one of the top things. It’s native to New Jersey. It was 100 years ago now that they started the blueberry industry here,” Macrie said.

The state’s Agriculture Secretary, Douglas Fisher, and local farmers marked National Blueberry Month by showing off the fields and sampling the product.

At the height of the season, New Jersey farmers will produce about 250,000 crates of them each day. Most of the fruit will end up in nearby grocery stores, but some will be shipped as far as Florida and Canada. It’s part of an agrifood industry that remains one of the state’s biggest.

“It’s an economic generator for thousands of jobs. If you take agrifood together, it’s the third largest industry in the state. So think about all the processing, just the harvesting of the crop itself, all the value added propositions,” said Fisher.

New Jersey blueberries are pretty much consumed domestically, but there is a growing Canadian, United Kingdom and Chinese export market.

So far New Jersey’s farmers aren’t feeling the heat from the burgeoning trade war. Mexico is said to be considering tariffs on blueberries, but those are mostly imported from Florida, and the Canadians have hit other fruit.

The main challenge this summer for New Jersey farmers is finding labor.

“Labor is one of the biggest challenges. As the economy gets better, the labor pool starts to shrink even more. We are working, as you saw in the packing house, on more technologically advanced machinery. And we’re looking toward more varieties that can be picked by machine,” said Macrie.

New Jersey has 700,000 acres of farmland, but like the rest of the nation, it’s being replaced by condos and shopping malls.

“In New Jersey we actually have a head start because we have preserved probably the largest percentage of farmland, of our total farmland available, in the country. We’ve spent $1.7 billion on farmland preservation in the state,” Fisher said.

Blueberries were the top crop in 2017. Whether they remain the top crop will come down to weather, price and what Americans like in their pies.