A close-up of clean, fresh blueberries.
Food & Drink

How New Jersey Became the Garden State

The Story of the Pine Barrens

It’s hard to think of New Jersey as anything more than highways and factories. Between the Turnpike and the Parkway, it can sometimes feel like the entire state of New Jersey is just a long driveway to New York City. But despite being a hotbed of industry and being the nation’s most densely populated state behind Washington D.C., New Jersey has the nerve to officially declare itself “The Garden State.” 

Perhaps this is part of the reason why New Jersey finds itself at the end of so many jokes. The audacity of New Jersey to call itself The Garden State when all you can see on your way to New York City are rows and rows of smokestacks. There are many reasons this state is so misunderstood, and the juxtaposition between what New Jersey looks like from the side of the highway and the official state nickname is one of the big ones, because the reality is, New Jersey is an agricultural juggernaut. According to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the state is one of the top ten producers of blueberries, cranberries, peaches, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, apples, spinach, squash, and asparagus. Impressive when you consider New Jersey’s modest size compared to its output of fresh produce.

If you look beyond the smokestacks and industrial parks, past the shopping malls and urban centers, there are farms (over 720,000 acres worth) scattered throughout the state.  But the first time New Jersey was called The Garden State wasn’t at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia like local legends had once told, and it wasn’t a reference to the entire state. It was rather a nickname given to one region of New Jersey: The Pine Barrens.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the term “The Garden State” was used as a way to advertise farmland across the country to prospective farmers during the early to mid 1800’s. There are records of South Carolina calling itself the “Garden State” and Illinois referred to itself at one point as the “Garden State of the West.”  But by the 1860’s, Hammonton, New Jersey had deemed itself the “Garden State of the East” and Vineland began advertising itself as the “Garden State of New Jersey.” Both towns are within the boundaries of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

Like so much of New Jersey, the Pine Barrens is a contradiction. European settlers named this 1.1 million acre swath of pine tree covered land in the southern part of the state “barren” because the sandy soil was too porous and acidic to support conventional European agriculture. Granted, there are a few parts of the Pine Barrens considered the “shatterbelt” where the soil is more fertile and is suitable for traditional farming of crops such as corn, peaches, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and peppers to name a few. But deep in the Pines where creeks and streams give way to the marshlands, there are two crops that thrive – blueberries and cranberries.

It took determined farmers to learn how to cultivate the temperamental Pine Barrens, and several generations of farmers who came after to learn how to grow commercially viable crops in this ecologically unique landscape. Stefanie Haines of Pine Island Cranberry in Chatsworth, New Jersey is one of many examples. She’s a fifth-generation Pine Barren cranberry grower.

Her great-great grandfather acquired the family farm in 1890, and it has been in operation ever since. “We have 1,400 acres of cranberry producing land,” says Haines, “and for every acre of land we have about 10 acres of supporting woodland to help protect the water supply.” Both cranberries and blueberries flourish in sandy, acidic soil, but part of why cranberries are particularly successful in the Pine Barrens is the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, an underground water system that contains about 17 trillion gallons of water. It’s an essential part of the Pine Barrens ecosystem, and a crucial part of the cranberry growing process.

“You will never find a more passionate environmentalist than the cranberry grower”

Cranberries are perennial plants grown in bogs. Once the cranberries are ready for harvest, farmers fill these bogs with water causing the ripe cranberries to float. For cranberry farmers in the Pine Barrens, that water is pumped straight up from the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer and recycled throughout the season. “You will never find a more passionate environmentalist than the cranberry grower,” says Haines. “The key to growing cranberries is where’s the water coming from and where do you want it to go. And protecting that water is our top priority.”

Haines is committed to land stewardship. In fact, because of Pine Island Cranberry’s forestry efforts, they were named New Jersey’s Outstanding Forest Steward of 2011 by the State Department of Environmental Protection.

But it’s not just about producing deliciously tart and perfectly firm cranberries, it’s about taking care of the place she’s really proud of.  “I think it’s a little misunderstood. But that’s fine,” says Hains. “For all the misunderstandings about the Pine Barrens, a lot of people want to come down and see what we’re doing. Can’t stop the tourists.” Haines says a lot of visitors come to the Pines not just for hiking, kayaking, camping, and other popular outdoor activities, but also to connect with the history and the area’s rural agricultural heritage. 

Farmers like Haines help this state live up to its seemingly contradictory nickname. “I never believed New Jersey was anything but The Garden State,” says Haines. What makes the Pine Barrens “barren” to some is what makes it a place of abundance for others.

Written By Kae Lani Palmisano Food Writer & TV Host Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.