Berry Farm, Inc.
Location: central New
Jersey, near New Egypt; about 20 miles southeast of
Trenton, NJ, and 45 miles northeast of Philadelphia
Key people: John Marchese; his mother
Years farming: 5 at this location
Total acreage: 60 acres
Tillable acres: about 40, of which 29 in blueberries,
1 1/2 in raspberries, 2 in pumpkins
Crops: blueberries, raspberries, pumpkins,
Marketing: U-pick, on-farm retail stand, wholesale
I arrive at Emery’s Berry Farm early on a Monday morning,
the first school bus is already in the parking lot, unloading summer
campers toward the barn-like farm stand. Shepherded by counselors,
the kids tumble in, select old coffee cans fixed with string from
a large bin, and hang them around their necks. Then they head back
outside and pile on to a low trailer hooked to a little old orchard
tractor for the ride out to the U-pick fields, squirming and shouting
all the way.
Farm manager and co-owner John Marchese (pronounced 'mar-KAY-zee')
is close at hand, directing traffic and taking evident pride in
the chaotic pleasure of the kids. "If you’re a U-pick
farmer, you have an obligation" to offer a safe, chemical-free
product, he says. "You know there are going to be kids out
there eating in the fields." Mondays are his slow day, but
even so, streams of cars and customers, trucks and employees swirl
around the farm. On weekends they hook two people-trailers each
to two tractors and run them back and forth to the fields all day.
Situated on the edge of the Pine Barrens, in the western corner
of Ocean County, Emery's is not only the largest organic blueberry
grower in New Jersey, but also, Marchese ventures, "probably
the most successful U-pick blueberry operation in the state."
It's fitting that that conjunction--between U-pick marketing and
organic blueberries--should take root here. When John's parents,
Michael and Susan Marchese, purchased this farm 5 years ago and
converted it to organic, they kept the name Emery's in honor of
the original owner, Butch Emery, who "had a reputation for
being the first person to hook a wagon on to a tractor and bring
people out into his fields." "People thought he was crazy,"
John explains, "but then they saw it was a great idea."
The blueberry itself, moreover, was first domesticated less than
15 miles from here by a woman John refers to simply as "Elizabeth.”
That’s Elizabeth Coleman White (1871-1954), daughter of a
prominent cranberry grower and, in the 1910s, the first person to
bring wild blueberries out of the woods and develop them into commercial
varieties. The high-bush blueberry's proximity to its wild origins
gives it good natural vigor and pest resistance, making it an excellent
crop for organic production.
Today, the Marcheses are upholding that twin tradition by running
a profitable family farm business and at the same time working closely
with Rutgers Cooperative Extension to advance the potential of organics
within the Mid-Atlantic's blueberry industry. In New Jersey, high-bush
blueberries are a $40 million market, with 7,500 acres in production,
only around 2 percent of which are certified organic.
That demand exceeds supply is indicated by the fact over the past
three years, organic blueberries have been selling at between $18
and $28 a 72-oz flat, while conventional berry prices have ranged
from $8 to $16 a flat. U-pickers at Emery's pay $1.75/lb for their
organic berries, versus around 90¢/lb for conventional U-pick
blueberries nearby. (A pound of blueberries is around 3/4 of a pint.)
Given those kinds of incentives, it's not surprising that interest
is growing: a recent Twilight Meeting at Emery's, organized by Monmouth
County Extension Agent Bill Sciarappa to highlight the on-farm research
he has been conducting there, drew more than 100 people.
Picking up where his dad left off: creating the largest
blueberry farm in the state
The last 5 years have offered a steep learning curve to the Marcheses
themselves. Michael and Susan Marchese ran a small, diversified
organic vegetable farm over near the shore for many years, but blueberries
were a new crop for them. "My dad brought me over to have a
look at this place when he was thinking about buying it," John
recalls. "The farmstand was run down, the kitchens were a mess,
the fields were overgrown--it had been on the market for two years."
In 2001, after just three seasons of work on the new property, Mike
was diagnosed with a type of liver cancer (the family believes it
was caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam) and died within
a few months. John, who had been earning six figures working for
a surgical supply company and whose agricultural background consisted
of growing up on his parents' farm, stepped into the breach. Last
season he tried splitting his time between his old job and Emery's,
but now, aged 32, he's fully committed to life as a berry farmer.
“I’m glad I’ve got some money saved,” he
says wryly, but he has no regrets about the career change.
John's mother Susan Marchese retains an equal role in the business,
and other family members--aunts, uncles, and cousins--also help
out. "John handles the growing, and I handle the store,"
says Susan. Once a quarter or so, mother and son sit down to look
at the books and make decisions about changes and improvements.
For the moment, they have 29 acres of blueberries picking from mid-June
to early August, 1 1/2 acres of raspberries from early September
to first frost, and 2 acres of pumpkins from mid-September to Halloween.
The farm stand stays open 7 days a week, 9 to 5, from late March
to late December, selling pies, muffins, syrups, jams, and chutneys.
The Marcheses report that when they converted Emery's to organic,
the customer base both shifted and increased. As John puts it, “we
lost 20 percent of the business and picked up 40 percent.”
Wholesale rounds out their organic berry business
In addition to the U-pick and retail sales, the Marcheses' berries
are wholesaled through Albert's Organics and Four Seasons, ultimately
traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. John maintains
separate fields at the back of the farm for his pre-picked or 'shipping'
berries, but says that the balance between U-pick and shipping sales
varies--this year, he estimates, they’re running about 70
percent U-pick and 30 percent shipping.
One of the Marcheses' major early investments was in packing equipment
that enables them to process 80 flats an hour and deliver clean,
top-quality pints. Berries are tipped from harvesting flats onto
a conveyor belt, where four or five workers cull green or damaged
fruit; the berries are then funneled into plastic clam-shells which
are automatically separated, filled, and shut.
The farm's fields are laid out in small blocks, 1/4 acre to 2 or
more acres in size, with rows 10 ft apart and bushes 3 ft apart
in the rows. Varieties include Berkeley, Duke, and Weymouth; John's
current favorite is Blue Crop, which is disease resistant and has
a strongly upright growth habit. That makes it well suited to the
use of the Weed Badger, a PTO-driven, hydraulic-controlled cultivator
with a heavy arm that bends around the right hand side of the tractor
and can be maneuvered in and out to cultivate between the plants
in the row. Although the rows are looking a little weedy at the
moment--in this year's soggy spring they were pumping standing water
out of the fields instead of cultivating--John shrugs with the confidence
of a farmer who's got his weed control system down. "Weeds
are an inconvenience, not a problem," he says. "I'll get
them cleaned out again when we're through picking."
Working on a no-till system to cut labor and energy
Even so, Marchese is working with Bill Sciarappa to develop a no-till
system to reduce the number of trips through the fields. The idea
is to combine low-growing covers like fescue and buffalo grass in
the alleys with heavy mulching in the rows, so that in theory, as
John explains, "I should be able to mow [the alleys] twice
a year and be done with it."
Funded in part by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
(SARE) grant, the trials are evaluating two different establishment
methods and eight different mulching treatments including coffee
grounds, tea leaves, cocoa bean hulls, pine bark chips, hardwood
chips, and landscape fabric.
Sciarappa also added a pest control dimension to the study, examining
ten different organic-approved materials including compost tea,
hydrogen peroxide, sulfur, pyrethrum, neem, and spinosad. Finally,
the collaborators are trying to figure out a way to use drip irrigation,
instead of overhead sprinklers, without interfering with the use
of the Weed Badger.
Marchese is keen to perfect his establishment procedure, since
some of the blueberry bushes on the farm are as much as 40 years
old, and he is gradually renovating field by field. When putting
in a new block, Marchese 'mulches' below the soil level as well
as above it, laying down 20 inches of composted hardwood chips in
the plant-row trenches. This helps create a pH of 4.8 or 4.9 and
organic matter content of 30-35 percent in the plants' primary root
zone. For fertility, Marchese side-dresses using a Victory dog-leg
spreader and a granular, processed poultry manure product he gets
from Frank Perdue in Delaware.
“Last year I bought 26 tons at $80 a ton,” John explains.
"It’s 4-3-3, and it's supposed to be put down post-bloom.”
Because it's a composted and processed product, its application
is not restricted by pre-harvest date, but John likes to get it
on as early as possible.
Getting help from his friends, both organic and conventional
Blueberry yields at Emery’s run between 2000-3000 lbs/acre--similar
to what an average conventional grower might get, says Marchese,
albeit considerably less than the best conventional yields, which
can run as high as 6000-8000 lbs/acre. John readily admits he has
more to learn about growing berries. "I'm still pretty new
at this. For now I’m comfortable losing part of the crop to
disease. Take this year. I probably lost about 4 percent to cherry
fruit worm--I could have sprayed Bt for that, but I didn't--4 percent
to mummyberry, 10 percent to poor pollination, 10 percent to blight."
On the other hand, John points out, conventional growers in the
area probably suffered more from poor pollination this year because
of the diversity of pollinators the organic farm supports. "Along
the wood line I got close to 100 percent fruit set," he marvels.
"There were just tons of bumblebees out there this spring,
when the honeybees were in the hives because it was too cold.”
John compares notes regularly with other organic blueberry growers
in the region, but credits Bobby Galletta of Atlantic Blueberry
Company—based in Hammonton, and one of the largest and oldest
blueberry farms in the state—with nurturing him as a grower,
especially after Mike Marchese passed away. "Bobby is a great
guy," says John, "and he’s the best blueberry grower
in the country. He farms very conservatively; his fields have very
high organic matter and he uses an absolute minimum of herbicides
Why U-Pick? Because it’s really cool.
Perhaps with the Atlantic Blueberry farms in mind, John cautions
that operating a U-pick farm has a number of disadvantages: You
open yourself up to crop wastage, to liability, to inspection and
criticism. So why do they do it?
He surveys the fields full of customers with satisfaction. “Because
it’s really cool. Because everyday you get to come out here
and see some three year-old kid with blueberry juice smeared all
over him and a big smile on his face, and you know he’s probably
coming from some condo or townhouse somewhere and this might be
his first visit to a farm ever. That’s why."