HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — In the dusty fields of western Atlantic County, workers pick the Garden State’s top crop by hand rather than machine.

However, there’s a decrease in the number of hired hands this year on some blueberry farms in the area, including Atlantic Blueberry Co., which is the largest cultivated blueberry farm in the state.

“This year, the snapshot would be that we were very short on labor from the beginning to the end,” said Paul E. Galletta, vice president of the farm headquartered on Weymouth Road.

Blueberries were New Jersey’s No. 1 crop in terms of production value last year at nearly $84 million with 10,000 acres harvested, according to the federal Department of Agriculture. The state annually is one of the top six producers of blueberries nationwide, statistics show.

A good blueberry picker can fill five crates at $4.50 an hour for a total of $22.50, Galletta said. Atlantic Blueberry Co. can produce 6 million to 8 million pounds annually. Galletta sees the operation falling short of 6 million pounds this year.

“Opportunities on the fresh sale were missed. Sometimes, after fields were not hand-picked in time, the quality became an issue, but all in all, we got through the season, but the labor shortage hurt New Jersey blueberry farmers, especially this year,” Galletta said.

About 10 years ago, tightened security allowed fewer migrant workers to cross U.S. borders, and an increasing number of crackdowns within the country further diminished the work force along with annual inspections by the U.S. Department of Labor, farmers say.

It takes 600 to 800 workers to pick the crops from start to finish at Atlantic Blueberry. It’s possible to hire that number, but some employees only stay for a couple of weeks, Galletta said.

“To try to get that nucleus of 600 to 800 for our company would be good. We had a nucleus of about 450 (this summer),” Galletta said.

Atlantic Blueberry could be down 20 percent to 25 percent this year from a regular good year, Galletta said. He said 2014 was a regular good year.

Picking blueberries by hand is time-consuming. Each worker uses one hand to pluck the blueberries into a container they hold with the other. They dress to shield their skin from the sun and bugs, working in tandem and loading plastic containers filled with berries onto trucks.

Claude Frenel, 66, of Orlando, Florida, picked blueberries on the farm for the first time. He said he has worked at a laundry and has picked oranges, tomatoes, peaches and lemons.

“I like to pick blueberries,” said Frenel, who earlier this week stood in front of an Elliott blueberry bush in a muddy field with a white circular bucket around his waist to collect blueberries. “Blueberries are better for me than every other job in my life.”

This is the last week blueberries will be picked by hand. With the first full week of August, machines will take over harvesting for the final two weeks of the picking season.

The lower number of blueberries was not completely due to a lack of workers. There was a weather factor at the end of May, when it rained for eight straight days, Galletta said.

“The pollination was affected throughout the state for blueberries. We probably had another 10 to 20 percent reduction in the crop, just based on that factor, and you couple it with the lack of labor, and it was a double whammy,” Galletta said.

Staff Writer

Twenty years as a staff writer in the features department, specializing in entertainment and the arts at The Press of Atlantic City.

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