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Research enters its final phase this summer

Rutgers is developing a sweeter, firmer blueberry for New Jersey growers

Rutgers researchers are getting close to identifying a new blueberry variety that can produce a sweeter, firmer fruit for Garden State growers.

The decade-long research project will move into its final trial this season. Of the thousands of blueberry plants evaluated for desirable traits at Rutgers' Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension in Chatsworth, only three or four samples will be selected to move forward, said Gina Sideli, who directs the center's breeding program.

When that trial culminates in about five years, Rutgers hopes to have a new and improved blueberry cultivar to bring to market. The state produces between 35 and 45 million pounds of blueberries on average a year to serve the densely populated Northeast.

"Of course, the growers want it yesterday," said Sideli, who explained there hasn't been a new blueberry cultivar developed for this market in about 30 years. "It's a huge investment to plant and replant fields and a big risk for them to experiment with a new cultivar."

Fourth-generation farmer Brandon Raso, part-owner of Variety Farms in Hammonton, grows 750 acres of blueberries, including the 30-year-old Duke varietal and 70-year-old Blue Crop varietal, which are just about ripe for harvest. He said Rutgers' blueberry research will take the guess work out of which new and improved varietal to invest in.

"An acre of blueberries costs about $12,000 to $15,000 planted. We do trials of 10 acres, so that's upwards of $120,000," he said. "For the grower to eat that cost time after time. It's not sustainable. That's why Rutgers is pivotal."

A new blueberry cultivar proven to yield sweeter, firmer fruit could mean significant economic benefits for local growers who are trying to cater to ever-changing consumer tastes.

"Consumers don't want tart sour flavor, they want a sweeter, larger berry that's going to have a better shelf life so it won't rot in a few days," Sideli said.

This is a top priority for Raso, who said consumers have become accustomed to the unblemished berries flooding supermarkets from South America and Mexico in recent years.


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