By Lauren Wanko
Countless blueberries are packaged at Atlantic Blueberry Company in Hammonton ready for shipment throughout the nation and Canada.
“The high bush blueberry industry started in this region and what makes it so perfect is the soil types and the temperature,” said Atlantic Blueberry Company General Manager Denny Doyle.
New Jersey ranks sixth in the nation in blueberry production. The Garden State produced 50.2 million pounds of blueberries on 8,800 acres in 2013, valued at $56.8 million.
“Well, I mean obviously there’s thousands of jobs that rely on the blueberry industry, both the growing and picking and of course packing. And the distribution channels and it goes from there. Ends up at the supermarket, the crop ends up at supermarkets and restaurants and so it has a huge economic multiplier,” NJ Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher.
Here at Atlantic Blueberry Company, the packing house is filled with more than 100 employees during the harvest season, which lasts from mid-June to Aug. 15.
“We have a very small window here to make money. The rest of the year we spend it. It does require a lot of prep, but it’s not our first rodeo. We’ve been there before,” Doyle said.
The family-run business, which began in 1935 with about three acres, has grown to 1,300 acres of blueberry production. The fruit requires three to five years in the field before harvest. In June, hand-harvesters pick the blueberries and bring them to the packing house. Then the berries are sent through the blower, which blows out any leaves. Next it’s on to the color-sorter.
“We have technology now that by camera can sort out green and blue and soft fruit,” Doyle said.
After the blueberries are color-sorted, they move on to what’s called the soft-sorter.
“This equipment has the ability to pick out and find any berry that is too soft to go into the pint,” said Doyle.
Everything is then visually inspected before the blueberries make their way to the weight packer where they’re loaded into different size containers, stamped and stacked for delivery. Blueberries are frozen on site too. Atlantic Blueberry’s Doyle says the new technology is creating more jobs.
“There’s a whole new group of workers needed to maintain this new technology, to build this technology,” he said.
“Certainly in agriculture and throughout the industry, yes there’s always a growing demand for workers to be able to work on the farms and for harvesting. So the demand is always there,” said Fisher.
Although the season is winding down, work at Atlantic Blueberry Company isn’t slowing down.