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The Associated Press August 30, 2011, 4:59PM ET

Irene could hurt NJ's blueberry crops next year

Flooding across New Jersey could hit hard one of the state's big cash crops: blueberries. But farmers may not know just how bad off the official state fruit will be for some time.

As of 2007, New Jersey had more than 9,000 acres dedicated to cultivated blueberries, second only to Michigan.

"You might not notice anything right now, but you may next season," said state Agriculture Department spokeswoman Lynne Richmond.

Several farms in southern New Jersey were still underwater on Tuesday, two days after Hurricane Irene made landfall. Most places around the state saw between 5 and 10 inches of rain in a month that had already gotten record rainfall in many parts.

"The ground was already saturated and there wasn't a lot of places for natural storm surge to go," said Paul Galletta of Atlantic Blueberry, who co-owns two farms in Mays Landing.

Galletta said he is still surveying just how damaged his crops are because some are still under 6 inches of water.

According to Rutgers Agriculture Experiment Station Atlantic County agent Gary Pavlis, the root systems start to die in bushes that are in standing water for 27 hours.

Some farms fared better than others.

Tim Wetherbee, a sales manager at Bill Blueberry Farms in Hammonton, which bills itself as the Blueberry Capital of the World, said things could have been worse if the storm struck earlier.

"The season has been over for about 10 days now, so luckily there was really no fruit on the bush," Wetherbee said.

The Garden State designated the blueberry its official fruit in 2004.

Other crops also are at risk from flooding, agriculture officials said. Sweet corn stalks were knocked over by 70-plus-mph winds and the state's small but growing wine industry could also be in trouble. Pavlis said the rain could swell grapes and dilute the wine.

He said industry officials hope New Jersey remains dry until most wine varietals are picked in November.


Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this report.

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