July is National Blueberry Month! What better way to celebrate than to feature one of our Fresh, Local, Organic farms. Less than 80 miles from us, Little Buck Organic Farms provides us here at The Corner with the most delicious blueberries we have ever tasted. Located in the heart of the Pine Barrens, Little Buck Organics spends their busy days harvesting the perfect pints of blueberries for The Corner and our customers. Edible New Jersey Magazine wrote this wonderful story about the Condo Family and we are happy to bring this story to you.
Wisteria grew wild on both sides of the road and the farm stands were plentiful as I headed deep, deep into blueberry country. Although I don’t often take the opportunity to exit the New Jersey Turnpike (it generally being the means of getting to some final destination south of the state), I had recently discovered that New Jersey’s state fruit is the blueberry and the place called the Blueberry Capital of the World lies within an easy drive. So, I had decided to get off the highway and take a look for myself.
It was here, in the Pine Barrens area situated almost equidistant between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, that Elizabeth Coleman White,the daughter of a cranberry farmer, and Dr. Frederick Coville were responsible for domesticating wild blueberries and transforming them into commercial varieties in the early 1900s. Fast-forward to now, and the New Jersey blueberry crop brings in over $50 million annually, making New Jersey the second-largest blueberry-producing state in the country, just after Michigan.
I had spoken to a number of blueberry farmers over the course of a few weeks—busy spring weeks in the life of a farmer, and I was grateful for their time—but it was Big Buck Farms in Hammonton that caught my interest. Their label, printed on every one of their pint boxes, reads “Little Buck Organics,” after their firstborn son, Louie, so I knew right away this was a family affair.
Despite its size, today the farm is almost fully planted in blueberries with only about 15 acres to go. Elizabeth finds amusing irony in owning a farm. Growing up in Hammonton, as a young girl she had “begged” her father to let her work at the local packing house with her friends and her brothers. But her father, a doctor, refused, and in-stead she worked in his office. Today, she takes care of payroll, runs the packing house, raises their two children, Louie and Dillan, and practices as a physical therapist (thus still fulfilling her father’s wish as well as her own). Yet with all that, the most pressing issue currently on her mind is how to involve seven-week-old Dillan in the business … perhaps a Baby Buck label will be seen in the markets soon.
Louis, on the other hand, had been around farms all his life. Although his dad was a mechanic, his family has always farmed in this area. His grandfather had a farm and Lou’s mother worked the farm stand. His uncle owns a peach orchard down the road (following Lou’s lead, he recently began growing blueberries). “I was one of the kids that had a garden in the backyard all the time,” says Louis. Since he was always dreaming of a farm, when the opportunity to buy these sandy acres came up it was a no-brainer, and, according to Lou, the next thing he knew, “10 years later I’m here.” In the beginning, they called it “the jungle,” but through the years they have reclaimed and amended the land, restoring existing fields, and clearing and replant-ing the ones that were too overgrown. With Duke, Weymouth and Bluecrop varieties, and a few Berkeley left from the original farm, the planting is almost complete. It has been just over two years that Lou has given up his day job and is able to call organic blueberry farming his full-time gig.
The harvest season runs from about the end of June to the end of July. The Condos have contemplated adding Elliots, which ripen later and would extend their growing season. But even with this somewhat short harvest period, the work year begins in February and continues through November. There is no farm stand and a pick-your-own berries operation is not an option here (although many do exist in Ocean, Atlantic and Burlington counties), but they never turn away a car pulling into their driveway in need of a fresh pint. The bulk of their blueberries are sold directly to a distributor and their supply does not yet keep up with the demand. So, the farm’s expansion continues.
In the spring, when the flowers on the bushes are plentiful (judging by this year’s flowering, Louis says it will be a bumper crop), Big Buck Farms rents beehives for a two- to three-week period for pollination until the flowering ends. He needs about two hives for every acre, although some types require a bit less. Most blueberry farmers don’t keep their own bees but rent them for that short period. Like those people who like your kids but are happy to give them back to you at the end of the day, the Condos prefer this method. Once the bees are gone, the growing continues and the Condos and their staff nurture the fields until the harvest.
Though they have been farming the land for 10 years, the Condos have only been “on the farm” in their newly constructed home since last fall. They had always known they would raise a family here and the juxtaposition of bicycles and farm equipment shows they are living their dream. The chemicals used in conventional farming concerned the Condos when they thought about raising children here, so they made the decision to convert to organic farming. Nearly everything on this farm is done by hand. Although organic blueberries command a higher price in the market, their labor-intensive nature requires a full-time staff of 20, increasing to over 70 during the picking season.
Curious as to why the local organic movement seems to be a trend more specific to blueberries than, say, apples, I asked around and discovered a few possibilities. The obvious reason would be that the high-bush blueberry’s proximity to its natural origin makes it more pest-resistant and gives it natural strength—reducing the need for chemical intervention. Then there’s the fact that blueberries are harvested earlier in the season, when the weather is cooler and fewer bugs are active. Even though organic bushes produce less fruit than con-ventional plants (when Louis went organic his harvest dropped by about 30 percent), farmers are able to charge more for organic blue-berries, so losing some of their crop is not a setback. And lastly—as Robert Frost realized, as we see in his poem “Blueberries,” which de-scribes a berry patch that had been burned down—the blueberry is obviously a hardy sort.
Big Buck Farms is one of many blueberry farms in this part of New Jersey. I encourage everyone to make a visit to this area — and to spread the word of the Garden State’s Blueberry Capital of the World.
Photographed and Written by Frank Mentesana, originally for Summer 2007 Edible New Jersey. Edited for length 7/23/2012