Super Fruit

Blueberries are nature's super fruit, packed with fiber, antioxidants and vitamins. Blueberries are also a big industry for North Carolina. Now scientists are working to decode the blueberry genome and create the super blueberry bush, which would help the state's blueberry industry.

BLADEN COUNTY — It’s easy to get lost on Carter Farms, in White Lake in Bladen County.

Rows and rows and rows of blueberry bushes, stretching as far as you can see. Each row is connected by a sandy trail, which is all tied in to one sandy road that appears to run the length of the farm.

The branches on the blueberry bushes on each side of the road are weighted down by clumps of berries — some blue, some red, some green. Blueberries don’t all ripen at the same time. And while some people who look at this see a handful of berries, more and more consumers and scientists are seeing a handful of health. Blueberries are becoming known as a super fruit.

“Think about a blueberry,” explains Dr. Navindra Seeram, one of the nation’s experts on blueberries. He’s an Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy.

“It has macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients, which include vitamins, minerals, natural sugars, and these chemicals called phyto-nutrients. These are chemicals that plants have evolved over time to protect themselves and it turns out humans eating these compounds can also get health benefits,” says Seeram.

With all of those benefits, it’s not surprising that blueberries are becoming big business. The North Carolina Blueberry Council reports the state ranks seventh in production, with an industry worth about $71 million dollars. About three quarters of the state’s blueberries are sold fresh, either at farms or in retail stores.

That’s the case at Carter Farms, where Ralph Carter is growing blueberries on land his parents first harvested.

“Some things haven’t changed in farming in all these years,” explains Carter, as he points out the original boundaries of the family farm. It’s much bigger now. “But to handle the additional acres and markets, it’s a lot different. It’s quite a journey now to get a berry from the bush to the store.”

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of that journey.

The berries are picked over the course of about one month. Pickers will make several passes through the fields, quickly picking as many berries as possible by hand. The buckets the pickers fill are weighed and credited to their account. The more berries picked and buckets filled, the more pickers are paid.

Once picked, the blueberries are taken to a warehouse and cooled down to 60 degrees as quickly as possible. That extends their shelf life.

Then they are taken to a packing facility where they are run through a blower to remove dry blossoms, leaves and sand.

Then it’s off to a machine called a color sorter, which pulls out the green and red berries. Those off-color berries haven’t totally ripened yet.

The next stop is a soft fruit sorter, which removes undesirable fruit, or berries that are starting to soften.

Finally, the berries are packed in several sizes of containers, depending on the orders that need to be filled. The cases are then taken to a shipping cooler, where they are chilled to 33 or 34 degrees and then trucked to the market.

While North Carolina’s blueberry industry is already successful, growers are turning to science in hopes of expanding the business even more and keeping up with the demand for this super fruit. The Blueberry Council has hired a researcher to advise growers on ways to improve their harvest. Scientists are also surveying farmers and their fields to find which traits the perfect blueberry should have. Ask Ralph Carter what his wish for the perfect berry would be, and he has a quick answer.

“That perfect berry to us would be number one, taste. It has to have a very good taste,” explains Carter, as he surveys his field and the clumps of berries on a nearby bush. “Then number two is size, and then firmness, looks or color, and then abundance, or how much a bush will produce.”

“Not all blueberries are the same,” says Dr. Allan Brown, Applied Molecular Geneticist with the Plants for Human Health Institute at the North Carolina State University Research Campus in Kannapolis. “We’re fascinated by the anthocyanins, which is the compound that gives the color to the blueberry. That is also likely the compound that gives the health benefits. But some blueberries can have six times the number of these compounds and you can’t tell by looking at the berry."

So Dr. Brown and his team are working to sequence the blueberry genome, in hopes of finding out the genetic factors that contribute to the healthy compounds that make blueberries so good for you. Brown believes if that secret can be unlocked, scientists can use molecular markers to create new varieties of blueberries that contain even more nutritious compounds.

What’s ironic is that Brown is using very traditional methods in his quest. In his high tech lab, in which instruments are named after characters on The Andy Griffith Show (and those characters' pictures are taped to the instruments) Brown and his team are going old school. They are using time-tested cross breeding methods to hone the traits and create the best blueberry bush.

“We use conventional techniques that have been used for thousands of years,” says Dr. Brown. “Making hybridizations between plants and then selecting those plants which have the best levels. Now we have some incredible tools that you see around us that make us more efficient in doing that.”

Scientists know the good things that blueberries can do for people, just not how the blueberries do it. They hope to unlock those secrets soon.

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