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Road Trip: Picking Blueberries in New Jersey

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009; 3:51 PM

WHY: Take your pick, a berry is born and fruity festivals.

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HOW FAR: About 63 miles from start to finish, and 178 miles from Washington.

In New Jersey, the fields are alive with blueberries.

The humble, healthy berry is the official state fruit of Jersey, and from now through mid-August, local producers bring a bounty of berries to market. Cultivators harvest about 50 million pounds of berries each year, making the Garden State the second-biggest blueberry producer after Michigan. Most of the crop ends up in supermarkets and restaurants, but pick-your-own farms in nine counties let folks skip the middleman and pluck the natural treat straight from the source. Blueberry farms populate regions across New Jersey but are particularly plentiful around the Pine Barrens, an expansive forested area where the sandy soil provides a perfect growth medium.

Compared with wild Maine berries, cultivated Jersey blues are mild and large, though dozens of varieties touch on every type of taste. The most common ones are Blue Crop and Duke, named for one of the founders of the Atlantic Blueberry Co. in Hammonton, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World.

The berries were first cultivated in 1916 by Elizabeth White, who collected wild plants around the Whitesbog farming village and developed commercial strains still used today. The fruit is particularly suited to pick-you-own farms because the bushes grow to about chest height and the berries are easy to pluck -- no thorns or nettles to get in the way. "You just put your hands under a bunch of berries and tickle it," said John Emery, owner of the 60-acre Emery's Organic Blueberry Farm in New Egypt. "The ripe berries will fall into your hands."

Central Jersey towns host several blueberry events during the harvest season. The Whitesbog Blueberry Festival, on June 27 at Whitesbog Village, features picking, blueberry history tours and a pie-eating contest (no forks or hands allowed). The next day, Hammonton High School hosts the free Red White and Blueberry Festival, where you can turn blue from all the berries.

-- Ben Chapman

Whitesbog Blueberry Festival, 120-34 Whites Bogs Rd., Browns Mills, N.J., 609-893-4646, http://www.whitesbog.org; $8 per carload. Red White and Blueberry Festival, Hammonton High School, 566 Old Forks Rd., Hammonton, N.J. 609-561-9080, http://www.hammontonnj.us/site; free. To find a pick-your-own farm, visit http://www.jerseyfresh.nj.gov or http://www.visitnjfarms.org.



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