HAMMONTON — Blueberry farms, with their rows upon rows of red-stemmed plants, look quiet this time of year. But appearances can be deceiving. To get a good crop of fruit next summer, farmers are doing a lot of work now. “We’re just finishing trimming,” Atlantic Blueberry Co. General Manager Denny Doyle said of the pruning project that takes about 15 to 20 company workers from October to February.

The pruners are the farm’s year-round employees, many of whom work in the packaging plant in summer, he said.

Blueberries react strongly to the removal of old wood by sending out new growth, with more fruit in subsequent years, he said. So workers must snip every plant on the farm’s 1,100 acres.  

His farm is also prepping for sales in the upcoming season and doing maintenance on machinery.

“It’s very, very busy, actually,” Doyle said.

Anthony Berenato is a second-generation farmer and has blueberries on about 120 acres in Hammonton. He has been improving his fields this winter, in addition to pruning all his plants, he said.

He just put in 18 acres of drip irrigation, he said, to replace the sprinkler type that sends water over the whole plant.

“I was working the trencher and doing the work needed,” said the 64-year-old, who has been growing blueberries since 1980. “Now, I’ll just be watering the (ground) where the plants are. I used to wonder, ‘Do I spray (pesticide), or do I irrigate?’ Now, I can do both at the same time.”

In the offseason, machinery must be greased and repaired, and business planning goes on behind closed doors, Berenato said.

On the research end, all the data collected during the 2013 growing season must be compiled and understood, to be presented to growers at meetings in February and March, said Dean Polk, the statewide Fruit Integrated Pest Management agent who works out of the Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research near Chatsworth, Burlington County.

Integrated Pest Management is a way of controlling pests through cultural methods that minimize chemical use.

“Both our research and extension people have a lot of data to go through,” Polk said. “On the research side, we’re punching numbers and making sense of it, because it is going to end up in publications.”

“On the extension side, they’re putting information together for grower meetings,” Polk said of the agricultural agents who help educate farmers about best growing methods and ways to handle pests.

Farmers will also be going to a lot of conventions and meetings in the next two months.

The Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference will be held next week in Hershey, Pa., and the  the New Jersey Agricultural Convention and Trade Show, will be held Feb. 4-6 at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.

Atlantic County Agricultural Agent Gary Pavlis said there will be information on blueberry research in the Atlantic City venue, but a Blueberry Open House on March 6 in Hammonton focuses on what farmers need to know for the coming season.

“We bring in all the researchers and discuss what to look for in 2014,” Pavlis said.

Pathologists will talk about handling pests, such as the tiny but destructive spotted wing drosophila, an Asian fruit fly that first appeared in South Jersey in 2011 after being accidentally introduced to the U.S.; and the brown marmorated stink bug, which appeared in the U.S. in 1996. Both are from Asia.

Polk said last year’s research bore good news about the stink bug.

“We found out it’s not as big a pest for blueberries as we once thought it might be,” Polks said. “Overall we’re doing pretty well with it.”

The stink bug is an insect that lives on many forest plants, so it is more of a problem around the border of fields than elsewhere, and can be targeted there with pheremone use that encourages them to come together where they can be trapped, he said.

Pavlis said he usually talks about pruning and nutrition, Polk talks about Integrated Pest Management and the U.S. Department of Agriculture talks about plant breeding programs.

“It’s very intense. All the growers show up and stay the entire day,” Pavlis said. “They realize they need this information to keep them on the cutting edge.”

More than 100 farmers attend that annual meeting each year, he said. It will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 6 at Kerri Brooke Caterers on Route 30 in Hammonton.

Doyle said the meeting and information from data collection in the past year is important to his work with Atlantic Blueberry and on his own small farm in New Lisbon in Pemberton Township, Burlington County. He has 15 of 80 acres there planted in blueberries, he said.

“We’re heavily involved in IPM. We were doing that for years before it got to be popular,” Doyle said. “That meeting is so very important, because it allows researchers to ... report what we will be doing, if anything different, for the upcoming year.”

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

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