Photo: Ditte Isager
"Everything in moderation" is a fine motto to live by for most of the year. But during berry season, "Chow down" is more to the point. Bushes droop with pick-me-now-or-else fruit, and nature's creatures are programmed to oblige: It's the time when deer and bears and kids with tin buckets are apt to gorge themselves on blueberries, consuming their recommended yearly allowance in a matter of hours.
Blueberries are native to this continent, having grown wild here since before memory. Native Americans called them star berries, after the tiny, starlike ruffle at the blossom end of each.
They were a scavengers' treasure until the early 1900s, when a clever New Jersey woman named Elizabeth White realized they could be cultivated on plots of land too poor for ordinary farming. Blueberries like acidic soil, and consumers like blueberries. A crop was born.
Neptune Farm, on a loamy stretch of delta land in southern New Jersey, was the site of one such early blueberry enterprise. The farmhouse itself had been built in the 1700s by Quakers, on land inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape tribe. Local lore has it that during the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. But by the time Torrey Reade came across the spread, in 1989, the blueberry fields had been abandoned for years. "There were weeds as big as shade trees," she says, "and poison ivy with leaves the size of your hand."
To Reade, it looked like paradise. An MBA with a Wall Street job, she was miserable living in New York City and had begun cultivating every spare inch of her urban landscape—windowsills, fire escapes, the rooftop. "I had this bucolic dream," she says. "I was looking for a garden." Instead she bought 126 acres of what she calls "a huge, abused, and neglected farm. I knew there were blueberries out there," she says. But for the first few years after moving in, she couldn't see them. Then she hired Jamaican immigrant farmers with machetes, and they revealed two acres' worth of 50-year-old blueberry bushes, still bearing fruit.
At around this time, Reade went to her 20th college reunion and ran into Dick McDermott. "We'd been sweethearts in college," she said, and their hearts were still tender. McDermott had worked as a painter, groundskeeper, and set designer in Minnesota—odd jobs that prepared him well for the diverse challenges of farming. He packed up, drove to New Jersey, and they've been together ever since.