Friday, February 22, 2013

Elizabeth White: berry good for the Pinelands

Blueberries and cranberries may be the perfect foods for New Jersey explorers. Known for their deep colors and vibrant flavors, both berries are lauded as containing several chemical compounds that have been credited with blocking cancer and extending life. Factor in that they taste great and are among the state's largest cash crops, and, well, you'd be crazy not to like them.

You might recall we visited the historic Whitesbog Village cranberry farm a few weeks ago in the futile search for tundra swans. That we were going to end up in the cranberry bogs was a foregone conclusion. What we didn't realize was that we were going to the birthplace of the cultivated blueberry, developed by Elizabeth White.

When Elizabeth was born in 1871, the White family was already prominent in Pinelands farming. Her grandfather, Barclay White, had been the first in New Jersey to plant cranberry bushes for commercial harvest, where others had been harvesting from wild plants. Young Elizabeth often accompanied her father on his trips to the family farm, starting a lifelong devotion to agriculture. It's supposed that blueberries were her favorites and that she often searched out wild bushes of them at the edges of the cranberry bogs.

Though she studied at Drexel University during the winters, she spent the harvests on the farm, supervising the cranberry pickers who came to know her as "Miss Lizzie." She inherited the 3000 acre plantation when her father died, and her self-propelled education in horticulture drove her to keep abreast of developments in various crops. When she read that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Frederick Coville was researching blueberry cultivation, she invited him to come to Whitesbog to further his work. She and her father had often discussed the commercial possibilities of blueberries, but they knew that to find a market, they'd have to find a way to grow berries that were uniform in all qualities.

Elizabeth White's instructions
to blueberry plant finders.
Drawing on the relationships she'd built with her neighbors over the years, Elizabeth asked Pinelands residents where she could find the best wild blueberries -- or huckleberries -- in the region. Specifically, she asked about flavor, texture, size, resistance to disease and cold, and how quickly each variety ripened, providing very specific instructions for harvesting plant specimens. She and Coville then propagated and cross fertilized the various specimens to develop the optimal highbush blueberry, releasing their first harvest to market in 1916.

By 1986, New Jersey ranked second in the country for annual blueberry production, but even more importantly, many of the berries grown throughout the U.S. and Canada are products of plants whose roots, so to speak, began in Whitesbog. Elizabeth was honored by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture for her achievement, becoming the first woman to be presented a citation by the department.

Elizabeth's horticultural and agricultural achievements are widely known in the industry, but she's not as well recognized for her advocacy of migrant workers and her Pinelands neighbors. When the National Child Labor Committee published a highly critical pamphlet in 1916 about the working conditions in on cranberry farms, she swung into action to refute the organization's claims. Her close relationships with many of the families who worked at Whitesbog gave her a compelling point of view, which she communicated widely at speaking engagements and through letters to newspapers across the country. After a four year campaign, the NCLC retracted its claims and acknowledged Elizabeth's role in setting the record straight.

Interestingly, Miss Lizzie is also linked with another, more controversial Elizabeth: researcher Elizabeth Kite of the Vineland Training School. You might be familiar with Kite's work on behalf of Dr. Henry Goddard, whose studies of families in the Pinelands erroneously attributed intelligence to heredity. (While Goddard later refuted his own work, it was appropriated by proponents of eugenics to rationalize their own dangerous beliefs.) Kite's own study was perceived to infer that the residents of the Pinelands were inbred and thus unintelligent, lending to the then-commonly held belief about this little-understood region of the state. Miss Lizzie again used her prodigious communications skills to defend Kite's work and advocate for the creation of a training school for the region's people. “I am a ‘piney’ myself," she said. "That I am not generally so classed is simply because of the degree of success my forebears have achieved in their struggle for existence in the New Jersey pines.”

Miss Lizzie died in 1954, having extended her work to the propagation of holly and other Pinelands plants as the founder of Holly Haven, Inc. Whitesbog, as we mentioned after our visit, is now being preserved and interpreted by the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, and Suningive, her home, is occasionally open for tours. Given her love of the Pinelands and her family farm, I wouldn't be surprised if her spirit dwells there still.


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