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Visit to Hammonton farm highlights scale of blueberry business in NJ and beyond

Visit to Hammonton farm highlights scale of blueberry business in NJ and beyond

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Sam Mento, owner of Mento Blueberry Farm, and Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher talk about this year's harvest.

HAMMONTON — Mento Blueberry Farm was business as usual Wednesday late in the season, save for a few special guests.

Doug Fisher, agriculture secretary for the state; Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick; and state Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, D-Burlington, Camden, Atlantic, traveled to Hammonton to commemorate National Blueberry Month and to give a nod to the economic impact this particular fruit has on the state.

“Blueberry farms like the one the Mentos own and operate are part of the fabric of New Jersey agriculture,” Fisher said.

New Jersey ranked fifth as a national producer of blueberries in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state produces 46 million pounds annually with a production value of $85 million — making it the highest-earning crop in the Garden State. It annually ranks in the top six for blueberry production, according to the USDA.

“Blueberry farmers like Sam Mento play a significant role in strengthening the economic climate of New Jersey,” said Addiego. “Their activities diffuse throughout the economy, touching every aspect of life through Atlantic County and beyond.”

Hammonton accounts for 80% of the blueberry farms in the state.

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“As a lifelong South Jerseyan, I know that we are the garden of the Garden State and it’s family-owned farms that make us that. We owe a lot to family-owned farms for contributing so much to our local economy,” Fitzpatrick said.

Mento, one of 270 high-bush blueberry farms in the state, specializes in the blue and duke varieties. The weather this year created favorable conditions for the season, which usually begins in mid-June and wraps toward the end of July. Owner Sam Mento credits an abundance of sunshine for the sweetness and plumpness of his berries.

According to Kathy Mento, Sam’s wife, there were no issues with making sure there were enough workers to pick the crops this year, despite challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions. Mento employs workers through the H2-A visa program, which allows for farms to employ foreign workers to fill temporary positions.

The blueberries on Mento’s farm are handpicked and packaged. They pass through a machine called a blower to remove any debris, like stems or leaves. Then they pass through a sorting machine that is able to individually scan many berries at a time, while two people conduct a visual check.

The blueberries then go into the hopper, which feeds them into the pints on a conveyor belt where each package again is visually checked for any imperfect or unripe berries. Those pints are then placed into crates at the end of the conveyor belt and stacked onto palettes before being shipped to market. The berries are shipped nationwide, and even to Canada.

It’s a true family affair, as the Mento children also inspect berries coming down the conveyor belt.

“It’s more than a job. It’s a way of life for us. This is our home away from home,” Sam Mento told the government officials visiting his family’s operation.

Mento Blueberry Farm sells its berries locally in Atlantic County at farmers markets in Brigantine, Ventnor, Margate and Smithville.

“There’s a nice feeling when you know they are grown right here in your county,” he said.

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