The North Carolina Blueberry Festival returns to Pender County on June 18 after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. Festivities include bands, a car and truck show, cycling and running events, arts and crafts vendors, and of course everything blueberry — fresh local fruit from farmers in Pender, New Hanover, Bladen, Duplin and Sampson counties, and all manner of foods and treats flavored with the yummy berry.
This year, festivalgoers will have the opportunity to not only sample the flavorful, nutrition-rich fruit, but also to learn about where it comes from, research-based efforts to improve the crop, and its importance to area growers.
The Pender County Extension Center is offering tours of the NC State Horticulture Crops Research Station in Castle Hayne, between Burgaw and Wilmington.
“We are going to offer bus tours, leaving from the office here the day of the festival,” says Mark Seitz, Extension director in Pender County. “We will take people down to the research facility in Castle Hayne and have faculty members and researchers from NC State give the general public a taste of what goes on behind the scenes to get a blueberry plant from the plant breeding phase to production.”
The Extension office parking lot on Walker Street in Burgaw is an overflow lot, with shuttles to and from the site downtown. Seitz will have two buses available in the morning to take interested patrons on a 25-minute ride to the research station, where they can learn about plant breeding and variety development, improving fruit quality and nutrition, the history of blueberries in North Carolina, and harvesting and handling.
“We’ll get them down there for about an hour, and there’s still time for them to come back and buy funnel cakes and blueberries and blueberry ice cream and listen to the bands,” he says. “Maybe we can send them home with a little better idea of how this all got started and how to grow blueberries.”
The station is located on 111 acres just a few miles north of Wilmington. Researchers primarily work with blueberries, strawberries and muscadine grapes, testing new varieties for qualities such as taste, yield and disease resistance, helping North Carolina growers improve their crops.
“If we can get a couple of hundred people down there and teach them a little bit about what it takes to get these crops from the research phase to the market phase, it helps people see where their food is coming from,” Seitz says. “We’re three or four generations away from when the majority of us lived on farms. We’re losing that connection quickly. It’s just a good teaching opportunity.”