New Jersey Born And Bred: How The Wild Blueberry Was Tamed : The Salt In the past 10 years, the global blueberry crop has tripled. Yet the big, round commercial blueberry is a fairly recent innovation. It was created by breeders exactly 100 years ago, in New Jersey.

How New Jersey Tamed The Wild Blueberry For Global Production

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's talk about those blueberries in your cereal this morning. You're surely not alone. Blueberries have become rock stars on the global market. Demand for them is soaring, and truth be told, blueberry lovers have a few people to thank. Blueberries generally grow wild in places like Maine, but the ones in your cereal that likely came from the store were grown on farms. And those farmed blueberries were created a hundred years ago by a government scientist in New Jersey. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Every plant that we now depend on for food - wheat, beans, the tomato - it came to us from ancestors that once grew wild on hills and in forests. We don't know who exactly tamed most of those plants, which ancient, inventive farmer first selected seeds and planted them for food. The blueberry, though, is different. We know exactly who brought it in from the wild and where. It happened here in the pine barrens of New Jersey. Mark Ehlenfeldt, a blueberry breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says this land is called barren for a reason.

MARK EHLENFELDT: It's sandy soils, acidic soils, tough conditions. It's not suitable for most agriculture, short of blueberries and cranberries.

CHARLES: We're standing in a small settlement called Whitesbog. It's a kind of time capsule from a century ago. There are dirt paths and a few old buildings, their sides covered with plain, weathered wooden shingles. When these buildings were first erected, the White family owned this land. They were Quakers. Joseph White was a big landowner. He grew cranberries. His oldest daughter was named Elizabeth.

EHLENFELDT: I always describe her as being the son he never had. When he went around with his superintendent, she was the one that, you know, rode around with them on the wagon. She was very interested in the farm work.

CHARLES: And she was alert to new possibilities for the farm. In 1910, when she was 39 years old, she came across a report about blueberries from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from a botanist named Frederick Coville. Colville'd been investigating the wild berries that grew near his family's vacation home in New Hampshire. He'd figured out, for instance, why wild blueberries usually didn't prosper when people brought them home and tried to grow them in their gardens. Blueberries, he reported, need acidic soils - very different from most food crops. The report suggested that farmers might be able to use this knowledge to grow blueberries as a crop, and it got Elizabeth White's attention. She sat down and wrote a letter to Coville's boss at the USDA. She made sure to keep a carbon copy of this letter. She kept it in a fireproof safe for years.

EHLENFELDT: You want to see the quote on the letter here?

CHARLES: Yeah (laughter).

EHLENFELDT: All right. Give me a second.

CHARLES: Ehlenfeldt pulls out a reproduction.

EHLENFELDT: Dear Sir, I recently received from Washington the reports on experiments in blueberry culture, which I've read with great interest, and I write to make a suggestion in regard to future experiments.

CHARLES: Elizabeth White offered to pay the USDA to carry out more blueberry experiments on her family's farm. She was pretty sure this would be a good place for them. After all, blue berries grew wild all around there. These were tall, so-called high-bush blueberries. Within months, Frederick Coville, the botanist, came to Whitesbog to start the work. Elizabeth White put out the word to local people who knew the forests - pine people, they were called. She offered good money for any bushes with especially large berries. The pine people located about a hundred promising bushes. White named each one for the person who found it - Harding, Hanes, Rubel. Coville figured out how to take cuttings from those bushes and grow new ones - clones of the original.

EHLENFELDT: You could take that single bush and make a hundred bushes. You could make a thousand bushes, you could make 10,000 bushes, and they would all be uniform.

CHARLES: A few of those bushes were great berry producers just as they were. In fact, some of them are still growing here, right where they were planted a hundred years ago, still putting out berries.

EHLENFELDT: This is a field that was planted to Rubels and Hardings. Look at the Rubels - the Rubels here.

CHARLES: Yeah, they're great.

EHLENFELDT: This bush right here is full of berries.

CHARLES: You could actually come out...

EHLENFELDT: You could actually come out here and pick several pints of fruit off of this, even in the condition that it's in right now.

CHARLES: But Coville also used those native plants to start breeding - cross-pollinating, collecting seeds, growing the offspring, selecting bushes with the biggest and best crop of berries. Elizabeth White described this work years later as a joyous memory. Encouraging developments came thick and fast, she wrote. Dr. Coville and I gloated over them together. In 1916, they had a totally different kind of blueberry harvest to sell - big berries that all looked and tasted the same. The blueberry had been tamed. A new business was born, and how that business has grown.

DENNY DOYLE: Here they come, in from the field.

CHARLES: Denny Doyle is the general manager at Atlantic Blueberry Company in Hammonton, N.J. We're standing on the loading dock of the packing house. In the distance, I see wide, flat fields with long lines of tall blueberry bushes. They're descendents of those bushes at Whitesbog.

DOYLE: This all started with four acres - 1936 - and just built all through the years.

CHARLES: We're coming to the end of harvest, a two-month flood of berries. Thousands of tons of them flood through this packing house. A river of blue flows underneath a video camera, and it can detect instantly any berries that aren't quite blue enough, not quite ripe.

DOYLE: These air jets will blow it out.

CHARLES: They can pick out one berry out of that?

DOYLE: Absolutely - one berry. Yeah. If it's green - if it's green or red, it's coming out.

CHARLES: Some berries go into boxes and straight off to the supermarket. Others go into a super cooler where it's 15 degrees below zero.

DOYLE: And it's freezing these berries. Within 30 to 60 seconds, it'll start freezing the berries. I'm running 80-mile-an-hour winds in there, blowing. It's very turbulent in there.

CHARLES: Atlantic Blueberry has grown fast, but demand for blueberries has grown even faster. A few decades ago, plant breeders in Florida created new kinds of high-bush blueberries that could grow in warmer climates. Blueberry production spread from New Jersey and Michigan to Florida, Georgia, California, Oregon. Jim Hancock, a blueberry breeder at Michigan State University, watched all this growth in amazement.

JIM HANCOCK: I couldn't believe that this could be sustained, and it's never diminished.

CHARLES: You can now get fresh blueberries in winter. They grow in Chile and Peru. Europeans are now growing high-bush blueberries. Just in the past 10 years, global blueberry production has tripled.

HANCOCK: It's become a world crop. It's huge. Yeah, it's huge.

CHARLES: And no matter where they grow, whether in Oregon or Peru, these high-bush blueberries trace at least part of our ancestry to Whitesbog and the enthusiasm of Elizabeth White and Frederick Coville. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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