The Blueberry Queen of New Jersey
Elizabeth Coleman White’s Agricultural Impact More than a Century Later
By Wendy Greenberg
Photos courtesy of Whitesbog Preservation Trust
When New Lisbon’s Elizabeth Coleman White studied the blueberry more than 100 years ago, she probably didn’t envision a booming blueberry business in New Jersey, or the state’s reputation as Blueberry Capital of the World. White, in 1916, developed a hybrid blueberry that could be grown in the acidic soil of the Pine Barrens, and she became known as the Blueberry Queen for producing the first cultivated crop of blueberries in the United States.
White created more than hybrid blueberry bushes — she created an industry. Blueberries are the No. 1 fruit or vegetable in New Jersey, in terms of the 8,400 acres planted, according to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA), and a $76 million industry, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Agriculture Statistics Service.
To put New Jersey’s 46 million pounds of blueberries each year in context with other crops, in the same year (the latest statistics are from 2020), New Jersey’s 15.2 million pounds of peaches were from 3,800 acres with a production value of $21 million; and cranberries claimed 3,000 acres, and 531,000 (100-pound) barrels, for a $20.4 million production value.
While most of the blueberry harvesting takes place in Hammonton, which boasts a sign proclaiming it the Blueberry Capital of the World, and many farms with descendants of the founding families still running them, blueberries are also grown elsewhere in the state, where the soil is sometimes adjusted for acidity.
“New Jersey blueberries are plumper and have the full-bodied flavor that is highly desirable,” says Joe Atchison III, NJDA assistant secretary of agriculture, and marketing and development division director, when asked to describe the New Jersey blueberry. He notes that in a recent awareness study, 67 percent of respondents stated that blueberries with the Jersey Fresh label were better than blueberries from other locations.
What blueberries lack in size they make up for in the distinct flavor they infuse in muffins, pancakes, and pie, or in their sweet, tart taste when eaten unadorned. Everyone seems to have a favorite fresh blueberry recipe. Most pull out those recipes in July, which is National Blueberry Month, so-designated by the National American Blueberry Council.
The origins of the New Jersey blueberry are traced to New Jersey native Elizabeth Coleman White, who joined with USDA botanist Frederick Coville to develop and market the first blueberry bushes.
Curious and persistent, White is honored on the New Jersey Women’s History website (njwomenshistory.org) and her story is told on numerous New Jersey historical and agricultural websites including Whitesbog Preservation Trust, New Jersey Historical Commission, and U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
According to Sarah Augustine, archivist at Whitesbog, where White lived and farmed, “Elizabeth was a person who strove to never stop learning. She was creative, educated, compassionate, and driven. She also kept up with causes important to her and was active in her community. I have heard her described as being stately and elegant, but very down-to-earth and approachable.”
White was born in New Lisbon in 1871 and lived in the family home, Fenwick Manor, built by her grandfather. She graduated from Philadelphia’s Friends Central School, and what is now Drexel University, but she was self-taught in science and botany according to Whitesbog archives. She helped supervise cranberry pickers at the farm — which White’s father took over from his father-in-law. Both the Fenwick Manor and Whitesbog farms produced cranberries.
White lived at Fenwick Manor until she built a home at nearby Whitesbog in 1923. Whitesbog Village in Browns Mills was New Jersey’s largest cranberry farm at that time, and Joseph White was a nationally known leader in the industry. There, blueberries grew in the wild and were thought to vary too much in size and quality to be a commercial success, but White wondered whether she could expand the farm by growing blueberries between cranberry seasons.
Serendipitously, around 1910, she came across research by Coville, who was working for the USDA. His “Experiments in Blueberry Culture,” confirmed that blueberries needed acidic soil. White wrote to Coville, offered her farm’s unused land, and volunteered to carry out blueberry experiments on her family farm. She gathered some 100 bushes from neighbors, and they cross-pollinated the bushes. In 1916 they harvested the first crop of highbush blueberries.
In 1927, White organized the marketing-focused New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative Association, and was the first woman to receive a New Jersey Department of Agriculture citation. She was also the first woman to become a member of the American Cranberry Association.
White also pioneered the marketing of blueberries in cellophane. Says Augustine, “This was incredibly significant. In supermarkets today, we know we can expect to see produce in clear packages … in the early 1920s, however, this was not the case. Produce was sold in barrels, paper containers, or just loose. Elizabeth came up with the idea to use clear cellophane to package the blueberries so people could actually see what they were getting, thus making the product more appealing. She got the idea from European candy companies, who packaged their products in cellophane. Blueberries were the first fruit to be sent to market in clear containers.”
When White’s father died, the Whitesbog farm where she did all her research was left to a male relative. White had lived her later years there, where — again ahead of her time — she planted a garden of native plants.
“The precise reason for the farm not going to Elizabeth is currently unknown,” says Augustine. “We can guess that it was par for the times. Additionally, her brothers-in-law (there were three) all had an active role in business operations of the farm.”
White’s later years were productive, as she used her knowledge of cultivation on holly plants and established the nursery Holly Haven, which grew and sold the American holly plant.
Visitors to Whitesbog can envision a “woman who was resourceful, modern, and creative,” says Augustine. “Some of our artifacts visitors can see include photographs she took in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The largest ‘artifact’ is Elizabeth’s home, Suningive. This Arts and Crafts style home is reflective of her business sense, simplicity, and practicality.“
Whitesbog is located within Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, and the grounds are open every day from dawn to dusk.
“We have miles of trails and sand roads to explore,” notes Augustine. “Also, many of our buildings, including the general store, barrel factory, and workers’ cottages, are open on weekends and during special events. During cranberry season, we are the only public place in New Jersey where you can view an active cranberry harvest. Our 100+ year-old plants still produce berries to this day.”
Whitesbog will host the 2022 Blueberry Festival every Saturday from June 25 through July 25 this summer (see whitesbog.org).
Ongoing Research Focus
Today, blueberries are so important to New Jersey that they are half the focus of the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Located in Chatsworth, the Center seeks to ensure continued production and availability of high-quality blueberries and cranberries; minimize the use of pesticides; maintain research programs to study the health benefits of phytochemicals in cranberries and blueberries; and investigate causes and controls of diseases that affect blueberries and cranberries. The Center is staffed by Rutgers and USDA scientists, each of whom manages a research program that targets specific problems experienced by growers.
According to Peter Oudemans, professor and director, the Marucci Center’s research efforts “range from solving immediate, short-term problems such as finding ways to control invasive insects like the spotted wing drosophila and spotted lantern fly, to long-term research programs targeting soil health.”
The USDA-operated breeding program develops new varieties of blueberry “with specific horticultural traits to make blueberry farming more sustainable,” he says, explaining, in an email, that “plant diseases represent one of the more detrimental causes of crop loss and require continual upgrading of knowledge and application of new methods for control.”
One of the biggest threats to blueberries is the buildup of resistance in pest, pathogen, and weed populations, he says. “Our researchers are fervently studying these detrimental organisms to determine the most effective ways to control them. Soil health has become an important concept for study.”
This year, the Center launched a collaborative study to investigate the variation of soil health across the New Jersey blueberry farming industry “to measure and detect how changes in soil health can influence crop health.”
One issue challenging growers is that many of the existing commercial fields have been in production for 50 years or more. “We are now seeing that the organic matter in some fields in the soil has declined to less than 1 percent,” said Oudemans. “This can have serious consequences for cultivation and blueberry growers are developing strategies to build up the organic matter in the soil.”
All this combined with climate change means that, “Like most crops, farmers have to walk a tightrope to create the ideal conditions for blueberry growth,” Oudemans said.
Text a Blueberry
In the years following the blueberry boom in New Jersey, from 1942 to 1962, 200,000-plus blueberry seedlings were spread across 13 states, and in 1959 the popular Blueberry Hill cookbook was published by Elsie Masterton, a Vermont restauranteur. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, in the 1990s blueberry production reached 100 million pounds a year.
In the last two decades, much scientific research tied blueberries to health benefits, and the nutritional properties of the blueberry are becoming widely known. According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, the berries contain fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, and potassium, as a start — all at just 80 calories per cup. Blueberries are also low in sodium and have virtually no fat, says the Council website. In 2019, the American Heart Association launched the Heart-Check Food Certification Program to help shoppers identify heart-healthy foods — and blueberries are certified as one such food.
No wonder the blueberry has been the official state fruit of New Jersey since 2004.
In 2020, the blueberry became a social media icon when a cluster of a few ripe blueberries was added as a smartphone emoji, according to emojipedia.
“While the large majority of Jersey Fresh blueberries come from Hammonton, Atlantic County, the Blueberry Capital of the World, there is good production in Burlington and Ocean counties as well. Additionally, various farms across several New Jersey counties also grow blueberries,” says NJDA’s Atchison.
In New Jersey, the opportunities to pick blueberries are numerous. Various websites suggest farms and hours. One such farm is DiMeo’s in Hammonton, where Anthony DiMeo is a fourth generation blueberry farmer. The farm was started by his great grandfather in 1916, just after Coville and White revolutionized the cultivation of blueberries.
Blueberry Bill Farms is also a multi-generational business, Sam Mento Farms is another, and Atlantic Blueberry Co. of Hammonton, owned by the Galleta family, has grown from four acres in 1936 to more than 1,000 acres today.
Closer to home, Terhune Orchards grows blueberries for pick-your-own. A Terhune website article by Gary Mount explains how the Central New Jersey soil, which is not like the soil in the Pine Barrens, is adapted for blueberries. The berries are ripe for picking in early July. Mount describes the first berries as “amazing” and “tasty, big and sweet.”
Findjerseyfresh.com has pick-your-own information according to location, and shows some 30 pick-your-own farms within 50 miles of Princeton.
Blueberries are here to stay in New Jersey. “We anticipate blueberries to be one of the significant crops produced in the Garden State for the foreseeable future, as growing conditions are favorable and our farmers are dedicated and have great expertise,” Atchison says.
Elizabeth Coleman White’s persistence was indeed fruitful.