After The Inquirer drew attention last week to violations of wastewater discharge and/or housing regulations at eight of New Jersey’s 51 commercial blueberry farms, the state’s Agriculture Department lost no time reassuring the public.
“Consumers can purchase Jersey Fresh blueberries with confidence,” proclaimed the headline of a news release posted on the department’s website Thursday, the same day reporter Claudia Vargas’ story was published online. Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher said there’s “no evidence” blueberries are at risk of contamination; he urged consumers to continue buying them.
Given that blueberries were a $62 million crop in 2018, higher in dollar value than the state’s iconic tomatoes ($42M), peaches ($41M), or corn ($30M), Trenton’s rapid response is understandable. But so too are questions about the way migrant blueberry pickers are living, and how wastewater treatment is functioning or malfunctioning. And not only at blueberry farms, but at the state’s thousands of other farms.
Garden State farming advocates said that there have been no recalls of Jersey blueberries, and that federal, state, county, and municipal departments and agencies are involved in some way with overseeing, regulating, or inspecting them. The advocates also noted that the industry has a vested interest in self-regulation, for competitive and other reasons. And they insisted that faulty discharge of “gray” or partially treated wastewater by a malfunctioning septic system should not affect deep wells that provide water for irrigation and human consumption.
Nevertheless, the notion of partially treated wastewater anywhere near the undulating rows of high-bush blueberries in and around Hammonton (“Blueberry Capital of the World”) and other South Jersey farming communities is at best unappetizing. And at a time when treatment of migrants is a highly charged humanitarian and political issue, the re-purposing of sheds intended for equipment storage into temporary living quarters for up to 100 migrant workers is concerning, optics-wise and otherwise — the structures lack sprinklers required by the state’s Uniform Construction Code.
Advocates said the temporary living arrangements are necessary because the Pinelands Commission, which oversees the environmentally sensitive region where much of the state’s blueberry crop is grown, expressly prohibits “construction of seasonal agricultural employee housing.” A trio of bills introduced by Assembly Deputy Majority Leader Eric Houghtaling (D., Ocean) would create a separate construction code for farm worker housing; the measures were approved by the Assembly’s agriculture committee June 13 and could be voted upon by the full house later this year.
Like most people, we’re big fans of Jersey blueberries, and respect the hard work of the thousands of growers, pickers, farm stand owners, farmers market employees, and other retailers whose livelihoods rely in part or entirely on this storied local fruit.