Blueberries reign for many Hammonton-area farmers, but for sisters Sharon Figueroa and Elizabeth Beebe, raspberries rule.
"They're sweet, juicy, and we love them," Figueroa, 45, says. "But it's a lot of sweat out here."
Under Thursday's scorching sun, Figueroa, her four boys, and six of their cousins were hand-picking the organically grown crop.
At Brookeberry Farms, where drip-irrigated rows of Carolina-variety raspberry bushes fill five lush acres on Wiltseys Mill Road, it's not even 8 a.m. and the temperature is already north of 80.
"They ripen fast when it's this hot," says Figueroa, adroitly overseeing her all-boy brigade of pickers, who range in age from 9 to 18. "I back-pick them. I can see all the stuff they missed."
The little red gems the boys leave behind would "just melt" in this heat, she says, and that would deprive customers of local produce stands and five South Jersey farmers' markets a chance to savor their flavor.
Berrying season began a bit early this year, at the beginning of June. When it ends by mid-July, Brookeberry will have produced 200 to 300 crates - 12 half-pints each - of the best raspberries I've ever met.
Sales of Jersey-grown organic raspberries totaled $32,000 in 2008, compared with nearly $400,000 for organic blueberries grown in the state, according to the most recent statistics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Organic raspberries "are not a major crop, obviously," says Lynne Richmond, spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.
Organic and conventionally grown raspberries have a reputation for promoting health, offering levels of antioxidants in league with those of blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries.
"Eating raspberries keeps you young," Figueroa jokes. "When I eat one, it brings me right back to when I was a kid and I used to pick in the field. Every time."
The personable sisters began leasing this ground in Winslow Township's Elm (old-timers pronounce it "El-um") section from their dad, John Grasso, in 2008. He and his wife, Betty, live in the house on the property. Sometimes their daughters store flats of berries in the basement.
Though named for Beebe's daughter Brooke, the business honors the memory of the sisters' beloved grandfather, also named John Grasso, who farmed the same acreage and died at 94 in 2007.
"We used to pick raspberries with him," recalls Beebe, who sells Brookeberry's bounty at the farmers' markets, including those in Collingswood and Margate.
"When we decided to start the farm, it was like, 'We used to do this, and we have enough kids [to help out]. Why not?' "
The decision to go organic - Brookeberry is certified by the N.J. Department of Agriculture - followed, well, naturally.
"All our kids are out there picking," Beebe says. "We don't want [chemical] spraying."
Raspberries may be delicious, but picking them is a pain, even without the temperature nearing 100. Adult men generally don't like the work, Figueroa says.
"You've got to go in between and underneath the bushes," which are about four feet high. "It's backbreaking," she explains. "You have one knee always on the ground."
The berries aren't as robust as their flavor. Time in the hand, or under the sun, can easily transform them into raspberry jelly.
Raspberries also are prone to root rot. The fungus wiped out the entire crop during Brookeberry's second year of operation.
"We cried a lot," Figueroa says.
Fortunately, raspberries aren't the only source of income for the sisters. Their husbands both work, and Figueroa is employed as a dental hygienist.
But during berrying season, 10-hour days in the fields are not uncommon. The crew uses a golf cart to transport the flats to storage, and farming organically means weeds - which are as fast-growing as they are abundant - must be pulled by hand.
Though cool weather shortened the 2011 season, this year is better. Which means more work but also more money, including for the family crew.
The boys and their one female cousin, namesake Brooke, are paid $7 per flat.
"I like it because I get to be around my family," says Brandon Beebe, 16, "and I get to make some money."
He and the boys - Brooke is on her way - are more than happy to pause from picking to chant the farm's unofficial slogan.
"There are no bad berries," they shout. "Just bad pickers!"