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Hand picking is the secret to Sunny Valley’s blueberry success

The folks at Sunny Valley International are in a blue mood this summer — and that’s a good thing because it means the 2019 New Jersey blueberry crop is right on schedule with an outstanding crop expected.

“We do approximately 800,000 to one million cases of pint equivalent blueberries for the season,” Robert Von Rohr, director of customer relations at Sunny Valley International told The Produce News. Glassboro, NJ-based Sunny Valley represents a cooperative of approximately 10 growers centered around Hammonton, NJ — the “Blueberry Capital of the World.” Sunny Valley markets the cooperative’s blueberries under the aptly named Jersey Fruit label.

Copy-of-Clark-Farms-Blueberries Clark Farms is one of the farms in the Sunny Valley cooperative.“We will be starting our season around the 12th or 14th of June,” Von Rohr said in late May. “Everything is looking good for a normal crop,” he said, noting that the harvest typically runs through July. “We have a heavy six-week harvest, and usually go an extra week or two beyond that point.”

“It looks like the harvest is going to be a little bit earlier this year,” Von Rohr added. “It looks like we are going to be about five days earlier than last year.”

A key selling point of Jersey Fruit blueberries is that they are hand picked, with the growers raising the Dukes and Bluecrop varieties of blueberries.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on doing hand picked,” Von Rohr said. “When you hand pick they will go in and pick the biggest ones, let the bushes sit for a few days, and then go back in when the next batch gets bigger. That way we can pick a bigger, sweeter berry. If the harvesting is done by machine, the machine goes in once and strips everything off of the bush, so you are getting the good, the bad and the ugly. Those machines are a little tough on the fragile berries too,” Von Rohr explained.

“Normally we pick them early in the morning, pack them in the afternoon, cool them down and then either ship them that night or early the next morning, so they are at their destination within 24 hours,” Von Rohr said, noting Sunny Valley’s South Jersey location is only a relatively short drive from New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence and Washington, D.C. “We can ensure a high quality of freshness being so close to all of those major cities,” he said.

“At Sunny Valley we distribute from Florida to Canada and out to the Midwest,” Von Rohr said. “By law, we can’t go into California,” he added.

In addition to representing farmers growing the Jersey Fruit brand, Sunny Valley also represents sales and marketing Big Buck Farms, one of the largest, if not largest, organic blueberry farmers in the Garden State. Their blueberries are marketed under the Little Buck label.

“Organic blueberries are growing in popularity every year,” Von Rohr said.

New Jersey is in the middle of the eastern blueberry harvest season, Von Rohr noted. The season starts in Florida, then moves into Georgia. Georgia winds down in late May as the season then moves into the Carolinas, then to Michigan in the Midwest before winding up in British Columbia.

“There is a bit of overlap with us and North Carolina as the North Carolina season ends,” Von Rohr said. “But normally people use us for the July 4th holiday, for red, white and blue-themed dishes and desserts.”

The great news is that blueberry farming continues to grow in popularity, especially in the southern states. “If one state’s season starts a little early or another starts a little late, we may see some overlap in distribution, but we are finding that everybody is planting them like crazy,” Von Rohr said. “A lot of that is because of the health benefits blueberries offer.”

Von Rohr also noted that blueberry packing is also becoming more earth-friendly. “One of our conventional blueberry growers is all solar with a 100-percent solar packing house and our organic blueberry operation is also all solar,” he said.