At Atlantic Blueberry Co., experience is measured in decades
The other day it came to my attention that Art Galletta, the president of Atlantic Blueberry Co., was marking his 50th year at the company this June. (“60 if you count the years I worked summers as a kid” he told me a couple of weeks ago). His cousin Paul Galletta also marked his 45th year with the company in June. Together with their cousin Billy Galletta, the three men bring decades of experience to blueberry farming at their 1,300-acre farm located just outside of Hammonton. The farm has been owned by members of the Galletta family since its origins in 1935.
I’ve known Art and Paul Galletta my entire life, so I decided to interview them about their long connection to the blueberry industry. Fittingly, I picked June 27 to sit down with Art in his office at Atlantic Blueberry Co.’s main building on Weymouth Road in Hamilton Twp. I called Paul later the same day. June 27 was the date the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce held the 35th annual Red, White & Blueberry Festival, a celebration of the famous local crop that drew huge crowds and was an enormous success.
Art Galletta, 67, who originally attended Drexel University to study math, then shifted to business and accounting as his interest in the family business grew, told me his father, Arthur “Duke” Galletta gave him advice about learning throughout life.
“My father told me, ‘I’m 85 years old. If I only have learned one thing a year, I only know 85 things.’ Everything you learn over a lifetime creates what’s possible. If you’re not stepping forward, there’s only one other way to go,” Art Galletta said.
One of the ways Atlantic Blueberry Co. has moved forward during the decades is through innovation regarding blueberry varieties. Working with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension and the United States Department of Agriculture, led to the Duke variety (“Dad’s hard work,” Art told me.) as well as the Weymouth, Blue Crop, Bluetta and Collins varieties of blueberries. The company is an industry leader, and other farms followed them by planting these varieties of blueberries.
“We had the land and the know-how to raise the plants. They needed an area in New Jersey to test the varieties. New varieties are always the future of the industry,” Art said.
The farm has 1,300 acres, but about 300 acres are left open for “the new stuff,” he said.
I asked Art Galletta what makes the farm consistently successful after so many years.
“It’s a fusion. You draw on the past experiences and use that to create your vision for the future, along with some creativity,” he answered.
Labor remains a critical component of the farm. While mechanization has a larger role than it once did, it has not replaced the need for a human labor force.
“Machine picking is getting better. It’s not quite there yet, but it can do more than it used to,” Galletta said.
In the last 20 years, studies like the one done by Jim Joseph of Tufts University in the early 2000s that showed the benefits of antioxidants have increased the interest in blueberries, Art said.
“It stirred demand that we hadn’t seen. It grew the industry and a lot of people came into it because it became lucrative,” he said.
After all these years, Galletta said he still enjoys the work he does at Atlantic Blueberry Co.
“The most fun is when it’s all working and working right—when it’s all balancing, it’s a joy to watch. I love puzzles. And this job is like doing a 500-piece puzzle every morning. When you make all the pieces fit, there’s a satisfaction,” he said.
Later in the day on June 27, as the blueberry festival was winding down across town, I spoke on the phone with Paul Galletta, 63, another of the owners and directors of Atlantic Blueberry Co.
He mentioned a quote from his father, Ernie Galletta.
“He said, ‘Change, death and taxes, they’re the only things that are certain,’” Paul Galletta said.
When asked how his experiences during his long tenure at the blueberry farm had shaped him, Galletta instantly recalled several disastrous weather events that impacted the farm.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that we’ve been through some natural disasters. The first that comes to mind is the May frost of May 21 and May 22, 1992. When the berries are developed as little green berries, the frost affects them more than when they are flowers. The industry lost 50 percent of its crop. In August of 1997 we had a bad flood, 13 inches of rain in 8 hours. It impacted the crop the next year. The late June 2012 Derecho left Atlantic Blueberry in Mays Landing without electric for a week,” Paul Galletta said.
He said working on the farm for so many years has provided perspective.
“When you see the minor downs of most of the years, you really draw on those experiences and say ‘Man, I went through something worse than this,’” he said.
He outlined the key components to farming in our interview.
“The natural most important things in farming are water, pollination, sprays and good weather on top of it. If you put them aside, you would have to include labor. Blueberries are one of the most labor-intensive, if not the most labor intensive of any fruit or vegetable commodities. So we always had to be mindful that we would have a good labor force,” Paul Galletta said, echoing his cousin Art Galletta’s comment that mechanization has not superseded human labor in the blueberry industry.
He said he enjoyed the opening of the blueberry season each year.
“The beginning part of the season, there’s kind of an energy. When the owners and the workers see bright blueberries, they’re moving with an extra giddy up in their step. It’s almost like the first game of Little League. Everybody has butterflies in their stomach. We’ve been on this rodeo for years, and the first day is always a slow day for the harvest. But it’s like the first day of Little League. Everybody’s excited that first day,” Paul said.
Early in his life, he was thinking about a different career path, but he said his father had other ideas for his future.
“When I was 17, I was thinking I was going to go to college, have a four-year deal and then come back in the summers. My dad had a different plan. He wanted to spend his winters in Florida. After five years, he started gifting me shares. When I was an owner, that’s when I really committed myself to farming. All of my kids went to college, but none of them are going to be on the farm. College isn’t for everyone, and everyone isn’t for college. We need people in the trades. I made the right choice by not going to college, and my dad gifting me the shares after five years,” Paul Galletta said.
He said he came to see the generation of Gallettas above him as his educators.
“They were master teachers. They were tough, but my dad and my uncles were the best teachers I could ever have,” Paul said.
Paul Galletta’s remarks about seeing his elder family members as teachers during our interview reminded me of a story Art Galletta told me about his childhood toward the end of my interview with him earlier in the day on June 27.
“I was nine or 10 years old, stacking wooden boxes in a truck, and my co-worker was supposed to be working too, but was talking to girls instead. I came into my father’s office crying. I told my dad, ‘I quit.’ He left the office for 15 or 20 minutes. When he came back, he said: ‘OK, go back to work.’ And I did,” Art Galletta said, laughing.
Art Galletta told me the office he was referring to in that story from decades ago was located just a few feet from the office he was sitting in during our interview on June 27, speaking to me as the 67-year-old president of Atlantic Blueberry Co.
Atlantic Blueberry Co., the blueberry industry and Hammonton would not be the same without the Galletta family. Their long dedication to their industry and our community is an example that extends beyond agriculture and business. It’s a story of the success of a family that has embraced hard work, persistence and innovation.
That level of commitment and dedication needs to be celebrated publicly more often, and writing this column in our Red, White & Blueberry Festival edition seemed like the perfect place and week to celebrate it.
Gabe Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.