When spring comes too early to a blueberry farm

TABERNACLE, N.J. -- Warm weather has turned heads at the tail-end of this winter season. It's no surprise that sixth-generation farmer, Samuel R. Moore III, says there hasn't been much of a winter at all.

He was born and raised on Moore's Meadow Blueberry & Cranberry Farm in New Jersey's Pine Barrens. It takes advantage of 700 acres of land that has been in his family since shortly after the American Revolutionary War. Out of all the years he has poured his life into the spring crop, he says this year's climate is among the most bizarre.

2020 continued a trend of spring-like temperatures moving up the bloom of flowering plants by several days. Dean Polk, the StatewideCoordinator for Rutgers Fruit IPM program, tells us this year's bloom is predicted between April 8th and 11th. He notes this is a step backward from last year's projection of April 13th-14th. And the year before that, it was April 17th-18th.

"If everything stays on course for this year, then we'll just end up with an earlier crop," says Polk.

That's the best-case scenario. However, it is still possible to hit freezing temperatures all the way until May.

"In Atlantic County, the last possibility of a frost is May 1st. So, that puts the whole month of April in jeopardy," says Gary Pavlis, an Atlantic County Agricultural Agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

In short, the early warm weather can trick flowering plants to peek out early, only to be frostbit by a late surge of temperatures below 32 degrees.

"It rarely wipes out the crop, but it could decrease the crop," says Pavlis.

If the warm weather holds out until picking season, farms simply reap an earlier crop than usual. This can actually be beneficial by creating distance from the produce market in the southern United States. Otherwise, an overlap of harvests causes a surplus of blueberries on the east coast. In this scenario, the purchasing value decreases.

The improbability of the weather is not the only concern in the agriculture industry. The spread of COVID-19 is creating a potential problem for the labor involved with harvesting produce.

At Moore's Meadow, roughly 40 handpickers make their home at the farm once the berries are ripe. If social distancing and self-isolation is still to be taken seriously, this can cause a logistical issue for labor itself.

"What's going to happen to the availability of labor for all the fruit crops and vegetable crops that grow in the state?" asks Dean Polk.

While no one knows the answer to either variable, Gary Pavlis tells us what is certain.

He says, "Farming must go on."

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