From Retail to Foodservice, This State’s Fruit and Vegetable Bounty Goes Beyond Its Borders and Traditional Outlets
Much has changed over the past 100 years since the founding of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA). In 1916, dairy farms dominated the agricultural landscape, the modern-day cultivated blueberry was just taking root, and tomatoes by the wagonload headed to soup makers and canneries. Today, fresh fruits and vegetables are key commodities.
In 2012, the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s New Jersey Field Office in Trenton, the food and agriculture sector contributed cash receipts totaling $1.14 billion, making it the third largest industry in the Garden State. This boom, driven especially now by consumer demand for produce grown locally, does not appear to bust anytime soon.
“While consumer demand for locally grown continues to increase each year, we’ve been working with and sourcing local produce from New Jersey family farms for nearly 40 years,” says Derrick Jenkins, vice president of produce and floral for Wakefern Food Corp. Headquartered in Edison, NJ, Wakefern is the nation’s largest retailer-owned cooperative. Its subsidiary, ShopRite Supermarkets, Inc., operates more than 30 stores in New York and New Jersey.
“ShopRite supports the communities where our stores operate and the family farms operating in those communities. Many of our stores are run by families of third and fourth generation grocers who work with third and fourth generation local farmers, so locally grown is really in our DNA. Supplying local produce in our stores makes good business sense, and it’s also the right thing to do,” says Jenkins.
In 2012, according to USDA-NASS data, New Jersey’s 9,000-plus farms covered some 715,000 acres, or 15 percent of the land area in the 47th smallest state. Fresh produce is the leading agricultural sector at $462.9 million. In 2014, New Jersey was a national Top 10 producer of 11 fruits and vegetables. These were, in descending order, cranberries, bell peppers, spinach, peaches, blueberries, cucumbers, sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, snap beans and cabbage.
“With the help of Rutgers University, we have some of the most flavor-producing seeds to start with and we end up with high quality products,” says Jeff Shilling, vice president of procurement for FreshPro Food Distributors in West Caldwell, NJ. “In the southern part of the state, the sandy soil allows for excellent drainage so the crops get just enough water. In the north, the ‘muck’ soil helps to form healthy plants. Throughout the state, growing conditions help produce premium products with great flavor.”
New Jersey farmers use modern farming methods while still being able to maintain that small-farm feel. For example, third and fourth generations of the Tedesco family are owners and operators of Sunnyside Farms, where they grow crops like various grains and corn, and also own The Safeway Group, LLC, in Vineland, NJ. Here, value is added to Jersey-grown asparagus, leaf items like Iceberg, Romaine and green leaf lettuce, blueberries, zucchini, yellow squash, cilantro, herbs and peppers in an SQF Certified 50,000-square-foot facility dedicated to fresh and frozen value-added products. Customers include ShopRite, Wawa, QuickChek, Sheetz and Costco.
“The farm emulates Tedesco’s passion for food and whenever possible it is a core mission of Safeway to so urce locally grown produce,” says Amy Erianne, vice president of business development. “Since we are a large produce manufacturer and process a lot of different produce items, we do source year-round from all over the world.”
Sustainability endeavors, both social and environmental, are core values of many New Jersey farmers. For example, Procacci Brothers Sales Corp., the Philadelphia-headquartered grower of fresh tomatoes in New Jersey, is establishing a scholarship fund for Hispanic students attending Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, NJ. The new scholarship is funded in a fun way: $100 for every home run the Philadelphia Phillies professional baseball team hits during a season.
On the environmental front, Newark, NJ-headquartered AeroFarms, the world’s largest indoor vertical farm at 70,000-square feet with the capability to grow up to 2 million pounds of leafy greens annually, started production in May. The company’s goal is to provide locally grown healthy produce to customers year-round. Interestingly, the facility was built in a former steel mill. “Our proprietary growing system enables us to use less than 1 percent of the land needed for conventional growing to achieve the same harvest volume,” explains co-founder and chief marketing officer, Marc Oshima. “In other words, we can grow roughly 10 times the amount of a 1,300-acre farm (or more than 6 million, 5-ounce packages). Our biggest seller at retail is Spring Mix. We also grow baby arugula, baby kale and watercress and will be expanding into Asian greens.”
AeroFarm’s environmentally-friendly advantages include using 95 percent less water than conventional agriculture, 50 percent less fertilizer and no pesticides.
“The ShopRite of Newark and the ShopRite of Bloomfield carry produce from AeroFarms and we are looking at expanding that relationship by bringing AeroFarms produce to more stores this year,” says Wakefern’s Jenkins.
New Jersey farmers grow more than 100 different kinds of fruits and vegetables over a nine-month season. These crops are consumed either fresh or processed in-state as well as along the Eastern Seaboard and Eastern Canada.
“Herbs, chard and all the lettuces start in the spring,” says Ryan Flaim of Vineland, NJ-based R&R Flaim Next Generation Produce, which sells its produce under the Panther brand. “Then in the summer, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and squash are strong. In the fall, we come right back with all the greens like kale, chard and collards. We grow about 45 items now so we can supply more of what the chain stores want.”
New Jersey produce is sold in-state as well as to retailers throughout the Eastern Seaboard states and Eastern Canadian provinces. Much of this is picked, packed and delivered the same day or overnight. One of the biggest hubs for fresh produce transactions is the Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction Association, in Vineland, NJ. Over 6.5 million packages of fresh produce are sold during a season to distributors and brokers, who in turn sell to restaurants and retail stores.
“Last year we had approximately 130 different commodities go through the auction, and those commodities were packaged and sold in approximately 363 different manners to meet the needs of the growers and brokers,” says office manager, Carol DeFoor, who adds that the 85-year-old auction is now run electronically and offers member-farmers some 130,000 square feet of loading docks as well as state-of the art cooling facilities.
Peaches. “New Jersey’s peach season runs from early July through the end of September,” says Bob Von Rohr, director of customer relations for Sunny Valley International in Glassboro, NJ, the exclusive marketer of Jersey Fruit. The New Jersey Peach Promotion Council’s spokesperson Pegi Adam orchestrates promotions with retailers, chefs and farmers markets.
“These will be tailored to supply this year as some grower/shippers had spring freeze damage and their fruit volume may be down,” says Jerome Frecon, horticultural consultant for the NJPPC and professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.
Bluberries. “There was some weather damage earlier in the year, but we’re still looking at an average 50 million pounds, starting in early June through mid-August,” says Art Galletta, owner and president of the largest blueberry farm in the state, Atlantic Blueberry in Hammonton, NJ, which packs for the Naturipe label.
“Over half the crop sells during the Fourth of July holiday. Bigger packs, like 18-ounces to 2 and 2.5-pounder, are becoming more popular. Retailers like these because it helps move volume at a higher ring,” he says. Blueberries are hand-picked and labor intensive. “There’s innovation now in mechanical harvesting for fresh pack,” says Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberries in Hammonton, NJ, and chairman of the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council. “The limiting factor right now is the number of machines and the fact that some varieties do better than others with mechanical harvesting.”
Tomatoes. The Fourth of July through September and sometimes into October, depending on early cold snaps, is the state’s window for tomatoes. “We are hyper-focused on our Santa Sweet grape tomatoes, UglyRipe heirloom-type tomatoes, vine ripes and Romas in New Jersey,” says Rick Feighery, director of sales for Plant City, FL-based Santa Sweets, which is part of Procacci Brothers. “The mix has changed over the years. There’s an increased demand for heirlooms and less on grapes.”
Organics. “The next phase we’re seeing is locally grown and organic, two hot buttons with consumers today,” says Vic Savanello, director of produce and floral for Allegiance Retail Services, an Iselin, NJ-headquartered company that supports more than 80 independent supermarkets in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania under banners that include Foodtown, Freshtown, D’Agostino, Market Fresh and Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace. Savanello is also the president of the Eastern Produce Council.
More New Jersey farmers are realizing that the organic consumer is not going away and that segment of the business continues to grow, says FreshPro’s Shilling. “This is helping to push more farmers to grow more organic crops to meet the demand.” Jersey Legacy Farms, in Cedarville, NJ, grows more than two dozen vegetables organically. “The volume is doubling on yellow grape tomatoes this season due to retail demand. We also increased plantings of niche items like leeks and beets,” says Fran Hancock, sales manager for organics at Eastern Fresh Growers, which markets for Jersey Legacy.
Ethnic Produce. “New Jersey’s strength and why agriculture has stayed vibrant so long is that our farmers have the pulse of the market and an incredible ability to adapt product lines to the needs and tastes of the public,” explains the NJDA’s assistant secretary of agriculture, Al Murray.
Latin items such as chili peppers and cilantro are two items being considered for planting in New Jersey by Frank Donio Inc., a grower-shipper in Hammonton, NJ, that sells under the Top Crop brand.
“Mainstream retailers are looking for these items because they want to offer a complete line for their customers,” says Lauren Del Rosario, business development and marketing manager for the third-generation company, which operates a 150,000-square-foot temperature-controlled warehouse, cooler, freezer and production space facility.
Locally grown produce isn’t a novelty in New Jersey, it’s a way of life, says Murray of the NJDA. “You’re not going to be successful as a retailer unless you carry it.”
Jersey Fresh is an advertising, promotional and quality grading program launched in 1984 by the NJDA to help farmers get the word out to consumers about the availability and variety of fruits and vegetables grown in the state. Today, the brand enjoys an 80 percent positive consumer recognition, according to the NJDA, and the department helps retailers to capitalize on this by providing free Jersey Fresh branded point of purchase materials.
“We focus a lot on getting the word out about local family farms and our locally grown program with signage and promotions in store. Many of our ShopRite stores set up a farm stand in late May in the produce department that names the local farms they work with in the community. We also run commercials highlighting the family farms who supply ShopRite, and this year we will run a commercial focusing on the special relationship between some of our ShopRite family owners and local family farms. Some ShopRite stores even sponsor farm tours for customers. We also tell the story of local grown through social media and our ShopRite store Facebook pages, where we often feature produce picks and healthy recipes,” explains Wakefern’s Jenkins.
Jersey Fresh signage calls out close to 100 different fruits, vegetables and herbs that Allegiance Retail Services procures for its retailers during the Garden State’s season. In addition, the company puts together Jersey Fresh feature ads with about seven items at a time.
“Local, like Jersey Fresh, is a marketing program that is one of the best tools in our toolbox,” says Savanello.
Jersey Fresh Produce On The Menu
Restaurants and schools, as well as hospitals and ball parks, are part of the broad range of foodservice operations in New Jersey featuring Garden State-grown produce on menus. It’s a sector driven by consumer demand and fed by farmers eager to support the “locally grown” movement.
Jersey Fresh Dinner
Nearly 100 diners, including the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s (NJDA) secretary and assistant secretary, drive to the Jersey Shore destination of Lavallette each fall, but it isn’t for the sun, sand and sea. Instead, it’s to experience the Jersey Fresh-themed dinner served by Craig Korb, executive chef at The Crab’s Claw Inn. Menu offerings in the past include a butternut squash soup; arugula, green apple and shaved fennel salad; and cauliflower puree with pickled beets and chive oil that sided up to an equally locally sourced duck breast. Jersey grown produce isn’t a once-a-year happening on the Crab’s Claw menu.
“The Jersey Caprese Salad is a staple on the menu for as long as I can get Jersey tomatoes, including from the guys here who are growing them in greenhouses in the spring,” says Korb, who holds a degree in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. “I also use Jersey tomatoes in sandwiches and salads. Basically, when I’m ordering, I look for Jersey first.”
Korb says it’s getting much easier to source Jersey grown produce. For example, his main foodservice suppliers, Baldor and Sysco, both email weekly availability with a section that specifically calls out what is from New Jersey. In addition, he makes use of a small independent distributor who drives out to area farms in a refrigerated van and picks up just-picked such as herbs, greens like parsley and cilantro, bell peppers and eggplant.
“Customers come in here looking for local. It makes sense. Why have something shipped in from the West Coast when it’s available in our backyard,” says Korb, who also sources Jersey meats, seafood, cheeses and wines, signature items along with produce in his annual Jersey Fresh dinner.
Farm To School
The NJDA’s Food and Nutrition Division does not purchase the produce that goes into school meals. However, it, rather than the state’s Department of Education, runs all of the USDA-funded child nutrition programs.
“Our Farm-to-School initiative is a resource for all of these programs to learn about sourcing local produce, to find New Jersey farms to partner with and to create connections to agriculture through school garden and agriculture education directly connecting to curriculum already taught in the classroom,” explains Beth Feehan, farm-to-school program coordinator.
Anything that grows commercially in New Jersey can be served in schools, either through simple taste tests (like the ones used for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that over 100 schools in the state are eligible for) or through recipes used in the cafeteria, according to Feehan. Some school districts have very strong programs that promote local produce, while others use Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week or National Farm to School Month to celebrate local produce and incorporate it into their cafeteria menus. Still, others connect their school garden to a crop that grows in New Jersey to entice kids to eat it.
“We have a multifaceted approach to teaching children. Our role is to run the school lunch programs but by helping train foodservice professionals to use more fresh produce in school meals, we encourage all schools to use their cafeteria as an extension of the classroom, helping students make the right choice to eat healthy,” says Feehan.
Garden State Produce
The Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, a 965-bed medical facility with locations in Somerset and New Brunswick, is the first Jersey Fresh hospital in the state. The impetus to this impressive designation started six years ago when executive chef, Peter Pascale, joined the Eastern Produce Council. Today, Jersey Fresh produce is incorporated into some of the 1 million meals a year served to visitors, employees and patients.
“Corn, blueberries and greens, we use anything and everything we can get from New Jersey,” says Pascale, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. “In our cafeteria, we put a Jersey Fresh sticker next to the selection on the menu board if its ingredients are 50 percent or more sourced from in-state. That means sometimes it’s the tomato in the tomato-cucumber salad that’s from New Jersey and other times it may be the cucumber.”
The patients’ menu changes seasonally. Pascale works with the hospital’s clinical nutrition manager to create the selections. Menu items might include roasted asparagus or roasted zucchini or a massaged kale salad seasoned with lemon juice and olive oil. When the locally grown program began one of the challenges, according to Pascale, was teaching staff how to utilize right-from-the-field produce such as how to thoroughly wash and clean a fresh head of kale.
Take Me Out To The Ball Park
The Healthy Plate Concession Stand, a collaborative effort of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey and the Somerset Patriots baseball team, opened for business at the TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, NJ, in April for its third season. The stand will stay open until September.
“Horizon works with the State Department of Health on initiatives that raise awareness of nutrition and fitness,” says Dave Marek, senior vice president of marketing for the Somerset Patriots, a minor league ball club. “Over the past four years, we surveyed fans, and they told us they want the parks to offer healthier food options. It was a natural fit to partner with Horizon and the NJDA’s Jersey Fresh program.”
The Somerset Patriots contracts its foodservice with Centerplate, a global leader in live event hospitality headquartered in Stamford, CT. “We work with the NJDA, and they let us know what’s available and when,” explains Centerplate’s general manager, Mike McDermott. “For example, we incorporated Jersey strawberries in May in the fresh fruit cup. We’ll also serve veggies in a bowl like sugar snap peas with a raspberry vinaigrette. In July and August, we’ll easily sell up to 50 ears of fresh corn on a stick per game. Come late summer and early fall, there will be a nice big basket of fresh peaches or apples on the counter.” Jersey Fresh produce is also incorporated into other healthy choice menu selections served at the stand such as a black bean veggie burger, grilled chicken sandwich, turkey burger and garden salad.