When I arrive at Emery’s Berry Farm early on a Monday morning, the first school bus is already in the parking lot, unloading summer campers toward the barn-like farm stand. Shepherded by counselors, the kids tumble in, select old coffee cans fixed with string from a large bin, and hang them around their necks. Then they head back outside and pile on to a low trailer hooked to a little old orchard tractor for the ride out to the U-pick fields, squirming and shouting all the way.
Farm manager and co-owner John Marchese (pronounced 'mar-KAY-zee') is close at hand, directing traffic and taking evident pride in the chaotic pleasure of the kids. "If you’re a U-pick farmer, you have an obligation" to offer a safe, chemical-free product, he says. "You know there are going to be kids out there eating in the fields." Mondays are his slow day, but even so, streams of cars and customers, trucks and employees swirl around the farm. On weekends they hook two people-trailers each to two tractors and run them back and forth to the fields all day. Situated on the edge of the Pine Barrens, in the western corner of Ocean County, Emery's is not only the largest organic blueberry grower in New Jersey, but also, Marchese ventures, "probably the most successful U-pick blueberry operation in the state."
It's fitting that that conjunction--between U-pick marketing and organic blueberries--should take root here. When John's parents, Michael and Susan Marchese, purchased this farm 5 years ago and converted it to organic, they kept the name Emery's in honor of the original owner, Butch Emery, who "had a reputation for being the first person to hook a wagon on to a tractor and bring people out into his fields." "People thought he was crazy," John explains, "but then they saw it was a great idea."
The blueberry itself, moreover, was first domesticated less than 15 miles from here by a woman John refers to simply as "Elizabeth.” That’s Elizabeth Coleman White (1871-1954), daughter of a prominent cranberry grower and, in the 1910s, the first person to bring wild blueberries out of the woods and develop them into commercial varieties. The high-bush blueberry's proximity to its wild origins gives it good natural vigor and pest resistance, making it an excellent crop for organic production.
Today, the Marcheses are upholding that twin tradition by running a profitable family farm business and at the same time working closely with Rutgers Cooperative Extension to advance the potential of organics within the Mid-Atlantic's blueberry industry. In New Jersey, high-bush blueberries are a $40 million market, with 7,500 acres in production, only around 2 percent of which are certified organic.
That demand exceeds supply is indicated by the fact over the past three years, organic blueberries have been selling at between $18 and $28 a 72-oz flat, while conventional berry prices have ranged from $8 to $16 a flat. U-pickers at Emery's pay $1.75/lb for their organic berries, versus around 90¢/lb for conventional U-pick blueberries nearby. (A pound of blueberries is around 3/4 of a pint.) Given those kinds of incentives, it's not surprising that interest is growing: a recent Twilight Meeting at Emery's, organized by Monmouth County Extension Agent Bill Sciarappa to highlight the on-farm research he has been conducting there, drew more than 100 people.
Picking up where his dad left off: creating the largest blueberry farm in the state
The last 5 years have offered a steep learning curve to the Marcheses themselves. Michael and Susan Marchese ran a small, diversified organic vegetable farm over near the shore for many years, but blueberries were a new crop for them. "My dad brought me over to have a look at this place when he was thinking about buying it," John recalls. "The farmstand was run down, the kitchens were a mess, the fields were overgrown--it had been on the market for two years."
In 2001, after just three seasons of work on the new property, Mike was diagnosed with a type of liver cancer (the family believes it was caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam) and died within a few months. John, who had been earning six figures working for a surgical supply company and whose agricultural background consisted of growing up on his parents' farm, stepped into the breach. Last season he tried splitting his time between his old job and Emery's, but now, aged 32, he's fully committed to life as a berry farmer. “I’m glad I’ve got some money saved,” he says wryly, but he has no regrets about the career change.
John's mother Susan Marchese retains an equal role in the business, and other family members--aunts, uncles, and cousins--also help out. "John handles the growing, and I handle the store," says Susan. Once a quarter or so, mother and son sit down to look at the books and make decisions about changes and improvements. For the moment, they have 29 acres of blueberries picking from mid-June to early August, 1 1/2 acres of raspberries from early September to first frost, and 2 acres of pumpkins from mid-September to Halloween. The farm stand stays open 7 days a week, 9 to 5, from late March to late December, selling pies, muffins, syrups, jams, and chutneys.
The Marcheses report that when they converted Emery's to organic, the customer base both shifted and increased. As John puts it, “we lost 20 percent of the business and picked up 40 percent.”
Wholesale rounds out their organic berry business
In addition to the U-pick and retail sales, the Marcheses' berries are wholesaled through Albert's Organics and Four Seasons, ultimately traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. The berries are easily identified by the "Emery's Berry Farm" label stuck to every package. John maintains separate fields at the back of the farm for his pre-picked or 'shipping' berries, but says that the balance between U-pick and shipping sales varies--this year, he estimates, they’re running about 70 percent U-pick and 30 percent shipping.
One of the Marcheses' major early investments was in packing equipment that enables them to process 80 flats an hour and deliver clean, top-quality pints. Berries are tipped from harvesting flats onto a conveyor belt, where four or five workers cull green or damaged fruit; the berries are then funneled into plastic clam-shells which are automatically separated, filled, and shut.
The farm's fields are laid out in small blocks, 1/4 acre to 2 or more acres in size, with rows 10 ft apart and bushes 3 ft apart in the rows. Varieties include Berkeley, Duke, and Weymouth; John's current favorite is Blue Crop, which is disease resistant and has a strongly upright growth habit. That makes it well suited to the use of the Weed Badger, a PTO-driven, hydraulic-controlled cultivator with a heavy arm that bends around the right hand side of the tractor and can be maneuvered in and out to cultivate between the plants in the row. Although the rows are looking a little weedy at the moment--in this year's soggy spring they were pumping standing water out of the fields instead of cultivating--John shrugs with the confidence of a farmer who's got his weed control system down. "Weeds are an inconvenience, not a problem," he says. "I'll get them cleaned out again when we're through picking."
Working on a no-till system to cut labor and energy
Even so, Marchese is working with Bill Sciarappa to develop a no-till system to reduce the number of trips through the fields. The idea is to combine low-growing covers like fescue and buffalo grass in the alleys with heavy mulching in the rows, so that in theory, as John explains, "I should be able to mow [the alleys] twice a year and be done with it."
Funded in part by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, the trials are evaluating two different establishment methods and eight different mulching treatments including coffee grounds, tea leaves, cocoa bean hulls, pine bark chips, hardwood chips, and landscape fabric.
Sciarappa also added a pest control dimension to the study, examining ten different organic-approved materials including compost tea, hydrogen peroxide, sulfur, pyrethrum, neem, and spinosad. Finally, the collaborators are trying to figure out a way to use drip irrigation, instead of overhead sprinklers, without interfering with the use of the Weed Badger.
Marchese is keen to perfect his establishment procedure, since some of the blueberry bushes on the farm are as many as 40 years old, and he is gradually renovating field by field. When putting in a new block, Marchese 'mulches' below the soil level as well as above it, laying down 20 inches of composted hardwood chips in the plant-row trenches. He creates the roughly 18-by-18-inch opening with a subsoiler or "middlebuster" blade. The mulch helps create a pH of 4.8 or 4.9 and organic matter content of 30-35 percent in the plants' primary root zone.
For fertility, Marchese side-dresses using a Vicon dog-tail spreader and a granular, processed poultry manure product he gets from Frank Perdue in Delaware.
“Last year I bought 26 tons at $80 a ton,” John explains. "It’s 4-3-3, and it's supposed to be put down post-bloom.” Because it's a composted and processed product, its application is not restricted by pre-harvest date, but John likes to get it on as early as possible.
Getting help from his friends, both organic and conventional
Blueberry yields at Emery’s run between 2000-3000 lbs/acre--similar to what an average conventional grower might get, says Marchese, albeit considerably less than the best conventional yields, which can run as high as 6000-8000 lbs/acre. John readily admits he has more to learn about growing berries. "I'm still pretty new at this. For now I’m comfortable losing part of the crop to disease. Take this year. I probably lost about 4 percent to cherry fruit worm--I could have sprayed Bt for that, but I didn't--4 percent to mummyberry, 10 percent to poor pollination, 10 percent to blight."
On the other hand, John points out, conventional growers in the area probably suffered more from poor pollination this year because of the diversity of pollinators the organic farm supports. "Along the wood line I got close to 100 percent fruit set," he marvels. "There were just tons of bumblebees out there this spring, when the honeybees were in the hives because it was too cold.”
John compares notes regularly with other organic blueberry growers in the region, but credits Bobby Galletta of Atlantic Blueberry Company—based in Hammonton, and one of the largest and oldest blueberry farms in the state—with nurturing him as a grower, especially after Mike Marchese passed away. "Bobby is a great guy," says John, "and he’s the best blueberry grower in the country. He farms very conservatively; his fields have very high organic matter and he uses an absolute minimum of herbicides and pesticides."
Why U-Pick? Because it’s really cool.
Perhaps with the large-scale, commercial Atlantic Blueberry farms in mind, John cautions that operating a U-pick farm has a number of disadvantages: You open yourself up to crop wastage, to liability, to inspection and criticism. So why do they do it?
He surveys the fields full of customers with satisfaction. “Because it’s really cool. Because everyday you get to come out here and see some three year-old kid with blueberry juice smeared all over him and a big smile on his face, and you know he’s probably coming from some condo or townhouse somewhere and this might be his first visit to a farm ever. That’s why."