Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blueberries

Dan Allosso

When I read old books, I’m always on the lookout for references to other old books, or to topics that were relevant when the book was written, but that may not be well known now.  These sometimes lead in new and surprising directions.  There were several things in Bolton Hall’s Three Acres and Liberty, the book that launched the back-to-the-land movement in 1907, that seemed to deserve more investigation.  The thing that really jumped out at me, though, was a passing remark he made about blueberries.

In spite of being a hardy native plant that the Indians had harvested from time immemorial, Hall says “with our present knowledge of the blueberry, it is doubtful if it can be made a commercially cultivated crop.”  This surprised me, since one of my family’s favorite activities when we lived out East was picking blueberries at a big berry farm in the shadow of Mount Monadnock.  But Bolton Hall was no dummy.  Three Acres and Liberty describes a variety of intensive gardening techniques that are popular today (and that many people think were invented by their current proponents), including the use of manure instead of commercial fertilizers; “super close culture,” where plants are set very close together to use the land and water efficiently and keep down weeds; “companion cropping” and “double cropping,” to extend the growing season; rotation to reduce the impact of pests; soil inoculation using nitrogen-fixing legumes (just recently discovered when he wrote); mulching to save water; raising chickens, ducks and rabbits to use waste and produce food and manure; canning and drying to preserve even small quantities of food; and even disposal of city sewage by using human waste on urban gardens.  So I had to believe he was right about blueberries not being commercially viable in 1907.  And of course, the obvious next question was, when did this change?

Apparently, Hall wrote those words just about as late as he could have.  Commercial blueberry production began in Maine in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but the source of the berries were native plants that propagated themselves and spread as they had always done.  The only change was that growers removed the surrounding trees to give the blueberries more room and light.  However, in 1911 a New Jersey woman named Elizabeth Coleman White (1871-1954) read a USDA Bulletin about experiments in blueberry propagation.  She invited the bulletin’s author, botanist Frederick Colville, to the New Jersey pine barrens, where blueberries grew wild as they did in Maine.  White and Colville got the locals, who picked the wild berries regularly, to tag the bushes where they found the largest fruits.  They asked the local pickers questions about taste, time of ripening, plant vigor, and disease resistance, and brought the best plants back to the family’s farm in Whitesbog.  By 1916, White and Colville had created the “Tru-Blu-Berry,” America’s first commercial blueberry.  In 1927, White helped organize the New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative Association, which still exists today.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this story – there’s a lot that could be done with a topic like this! – but the thing I like most about it is that White and Colville were smart enough to use the expertise and local wisdom of the poor folk, the “pineys,” who went out into the barrens to pick wild fruit.  The Progressive Era is remembered as a time when top-down, expert-driven solutions became all the rage.  Often these scientific innovations were imposed on rural people without consultation, much less consent.  And often these changes were much less valuable and lasting than the experts promised.  So it’s great to find a story where the innovation came from a cooperative process, and led to a tangible and lasting improvement.  I’ll think of this next summer, when I pick the fruit from the eighteen blueberry plants of half a dozen varieties I planted this fall.
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Sources:  

Distinguished Women of Past and Present: http://www.distinguishedwomen.com/biographies/white-ec.html

USDA Technical Bulletin #275, 1932: http://organicroots.nal.usda.gov/download/CAT86200269/PDF (This is really cool! Did you know the USDA has an online National Agricultural Library with an “Organic Roots Digital Collection”?  I didn’t until today.  Here it is: http://organicroots.nal.usda.gov.)

4 comments:

kanchan tyagi said...

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Dennis Waters said...

Visitors to southern New Jersey are encouraged to visit Whitesbog Village and tour Elizabeth White's home (www.whitesbog.org). Another aspect to this story is that White was a woman in an overwhelmingly male farming culture.

N.b., the berries found on Monadnock and elsewhere in northern New England are of the lowbush variety (Vaccinium angustifolium) and are chiefly an industrial crop (think frozen blueberry waffles). The highbush variety cultivated by White is V. corymbosum and is the table berry found in the supermarket.

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hcr said...

This just highlights for me that the turn of the past century was a really important moment in US agriculture. Wasn't that when the boll weevil was tearing up the South? And what about George Washington Carver?

How can I possibly know so little about this?

The whole blueberry thing is fascinating, not least because it's a big and growing industry in Maine. And yet, I think it's still run much like what you suggest here. Once again, though, not really sure!