New Jersey Reinforces Value-Added Proposition

Originally printed in the June 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Garden State remains synonymous with fresh, local, innovative produce.

Celebrated for its flavor and freshness, New Jersey produce is dominant from May through September, and encompasses more than 100 different items. “New Jersey is a major player; we are ranked among the top 10 in the nation for the production of several fruits and vegetables,” states Douglas Fisher, Secretary of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA) in Trenton. “Our supply range encompasses the Eastern seaboard, as well as out to the Mississippi River.”

Farming in New Jersey occurs on 735,000 acres, which is managed by nearly 10,000 farms, according to the Census of Agriculture released in 2019. Leading crops include: tomatoes (with a $71 million (m) production value), blueberries ($62.4m), peppers ($46m), peaches ($41m), asparagus ($16m), sweet corn ($15m), and squash ($13m). New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia are primary target markets where produce can reach stores hours after harvesting. Secondary markets are in New England and eastern Canada.

“New Jersey growers have quick and easy access to both Philadelphia and New York,” notes Fisher. “The fact that we are close to those metropolitan areas allows us to develop relationships with a variety of food-oriented businesses, and to be trusted to deliver quality produce.” New Jersey farms are very important to natural and organic food retailer Whole Foods Market, headquartered in Austin, TX. “We procure a wide range of produce from farms growing both conventional and organic produce, plus innovative indoor vertical farming and greenhouse farms located in New Jersey,” states Brandi Brady, associate produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market Northeast Region.

Garden State produce is “among the best,” adds Howard Tobar, associate produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market Northeast Region. “In addition to the environmental benefits, including produce traveling less distances after harvest, it is also important to support local farms.”

The state’s location is ideal for reaching a large, diverse population in the shortest amount of time, according to Carol DeFoor, a manager at Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction, Vineland, NJ. Selling more than six million packages of New Jersey produce annually, the grower-owned cooperative provides services such as ice and cooling to help maintain product freshness from field to fork. “New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington are all within three hours; allowing approximately 20 million people to purchase the freshest produce available,” DeFoor says. “Sometimes when our growers are selling their produce, they are still in the fields picking. Most buyers here are buying what they need to ship out that day. When you are buying New Jersey produce, it really is ‘Jersey Fresh’!”

Speed to market is a major advantage for vertically integrated wholesaler Procacci Brothers Sales in Philadelphia. “Jersey is very important to us because you get product to the customer faster, and thus it is fresher, and also a bit cheaper without the additional freight costs,” says company president Mike Maxwell.

Valentino Food Market in Ridgewood, NY, buys New Jersey herbs and specialties such as Sicilian eggplant. “I buy from Jersey because the produce is fresher, and costs less because of short transportation to New York,” says Gaetano Barone, one of the owners. “For my customers, the plum tomatoes have to be from Jersey, period. They know they’re the best.”

Access to the New York metropolitan area is precisely why commercial indoor growers AeroFarms and Bowery Farming chose New Jersey as the primary location for their year-round production of leafy greens, salads and herbs. “Our model is to grow and distribute fresh food locally,” explains Marc Oshima, co-founder and chief marketing officer of AeroFarms, which operates four farms in Newark. “We supply primarily to NJ and the NYC metro area through retail and foodservice channels. By placing our farms right in the community, we are able to bypass a very complex supply chain that, traditionally, is coming from California or Arizona depending on the time of the year.”

Bowery’s first two farms are located in Kearny, NJ, while its third, most recent, is in Baltimore. “We chose New Jersey for our first two farms because of the state’s close proximity to New York City,” comments Carmela Cugini, executive vice president of sales. “Part of our model is to keep farms close to the point of consumption in order to deliver Bowery produce to the community at the height of freshness and flavor.”

Local Advantage

New York and Philadelphia retailers generally consider New Jersey produce as locally grown, but often the net is cast much wider. “Local to us is 300 miles, and the produce handles beautifully,” claims Steven Dandrea, vice president of sales at Dandrea Produce in Vineland, which grows more than 50 items. “Delaware is 40 miles away; Maryland is 87 miles away; and Pennsylvania is only 34 miles away. Freshness, ideal climate and logistics make New Jersey very inviting for southeast and northeast retailers as produce is grown, harvested and delivered in 24 hours or less.”

Procacci distributes across the northeast from numerous growing states: Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and New England. “Anything we can get here and out to stores within five or six hours is local,” says Maxwell.

With consumers eager to know more about food provenance, and prioritizing buying locally-grown, the Jersey Fresh brand has become highly identifiable since it launched in 1984. According to the NJDA, surveys show New Jersey customers strongly prefer to purchase Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables when available. “Consumers can purchase Jersey Fresh branded produce with confidence — knowing they are getting it at the peak of freshness as it can go from the field to the table on the same day,” Fischer explains.

“Given the current [Covid-19] crisis, consumers are seeking locally-produced food in ever-increasing numbers,” continues Fisher. “They want to know where, and even who, is producing their food. It’s important for retailers to promote the Jersey Fresh items customers are demanding, and we are promoting.”

Sunny Valley International (SVI), Glassboro, NJ, agrees local will remain an important value-add for retailers sourcing New Jersey produce. “With uncertainty in the supply chain, we believe it is more important now than ever before to highlight the advantages gained by sourcing products locally,” emphasizes Tom Beaver, SVI’s director of marketing and development.

‘Local’ is the number one trend at retail, emphasizes AeroFarms’ Oshima. “Consumer demand for local food is higher than ever, and consumers are demanding more transparency from food manufacturers, suppliers and retailers,” he explains. “Our products are local all year round, as well as completely pesticide free, offering retailers a year-round solution to meet consumers’ needs.”

The New Jersey Peach Promotion Council (NJPPC) recognizes more people want to buy local fruit. However, the response is not straightforward, laments Jerome L. Frecon, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, and technical consultant to NJPPC. “Consumers want to buy local but our stores don’t buy enough fruit to satisfy the demand,” Frecon explains. He says the problem lies with the purchasing power of large retailers. “Our shippers are relatively small-to-medium in size, and cannot always meet their demands or distribution chain,” Frecon details. “We lose sales because of these, and other factors.”

Key Crops

New Jersey has a diverse agricultural landscape since its climate and soils are ideal for growing an array of produce. Indeed, the state enjoys one of the nation’s highest production rates per acre. “The soils in Atlantic County are perfect for growing blueberries, while the conditions in eastern Burlington County are prime for growing cranberries,” remarks Fisher, NJDA. “We also have a great working relationship with Rutgers University Extension, which has helped develop different crops over the years, most famously, the tomato, which is known across the country for its great taste.”

Asparagus is the first major crop, running from late April through May, and by mid-June there are blueberries. July marks the height of the Jersey Fresh season for squash, tomatoes, peaches, sweet corn, peppers, and cucumbers, among others. August brings melons, as well as peaches. The fall features leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, and hard squashes, plus cranberries.

“We’re excited to get into locally-grown product,” enthuses Maxwell of Procacci, which sources vegetables, blueberries and peaches from New Jersey. “The asparagus looks really good. I don’t know what the summer will bring in terms of temperature and rainfall but everyone is optimistic for a good season.”

Procacci is one of the largest suppliers of New Jersey tomatoes; growing across 200 acres. “We’re just planting our tomatoes on the different rotations so it’s way too early to forecast,” he notes. “We do have some high-tunnels that are protected from the elements but outdoor production is always subject to Mother Nature.”

Fresh blueberries will be available from the second week of June through the end of July, says Beaver of SVI, a major shipper of New Jersey blueberries, and the largest marketer by volume of New Jersey stone fruit. “New Jersey peaches become available right around July 1, and we have steady volume through the middle of September,” Beaver details. “Cranberry volumes typically become available in October, and we ship through Thanksgiving into December.”

New Jersey has a long history of growing sweet, large peaches for the fresh market, according to NJPPC. The state manages around 4,500 acres of peaches and nectarines, ranking fourth in national peach production behind California, South Carolina, and Georgia. Various yellow- and white-fleshed peaches and nectarines, including flat or Donut peaches, comprise the varietal offer, and the NJPPC supports The Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station’s active fruit breeding program for peaches, nectarines, apricots and apples.

“We have a bunch of new white-fleshed peaches that will have fruit being harvested this year,” reveals Frecon, who expects the 2020 peach season to begin as usual around June 25, and conclude close to Labor Day. Volume, however, will be down by approximately 25 percent following two nights of frosts in April. “We have better varieties and more big peaches which the chain stores seem to like,” Frecon states.

Production Trends

Decades of experience means New Jersey growers are master adaptors to market demand. “Many of today’s brokers and farmers are the sons or daughters of the farmers who formed the cooperative 89 years ago,” says DeFoor of Vineland Auction. “Today you will see more Shanghai bok choy, fenugreek, tomatillos and [Mexican] gray squash being sold in the market,” adds DeFoor, noting that bell peppers, squash, cilantro, cucumbers, and pickles remain the top-sellers.

The NJDA says growers continually evaluate demand and test new crops based on the state’s diverse population. “Many farmers start limited production to gauge interest from their buyers, and grow or eliminate crops depending on consumer response,” explains Fisher. “We have phenomenal hydroponic growers in the state, as well as greenhouse production for tomatoes and other crops. We also have a vibrant and dedicated organic sector that continues to grow high quality produce to meet demand.”

New Jersey is using more socially and environmentally responsible practices. “Drip irrigation is used when practical, as well as cover crops, and plastic to retain moisture,” comments Fisher. “Some larger growers use precision Ag with satellite imagery to determine very specific quantities of inputs based on soil tests, moisture sensors, etc. Some farms are now using drones to help survey crops, and to apply treatments to very specific areas.”

Indoor Farms

Large-scale indoor farming has emerged in New Jersey also, with more players expected to enter this space. Year-round and pesticide-free, indoor-grown produce offers various benefits for retailers and consumers. “Our leafy greens are more flavorful than conventional greens, and offer better shelf life than conventionally procured greens, resulting in less shrink,” claims Oshima of AeroFarms. “Our controlled indoor growing approach also mitigates a lot of the challenges seen with traditional field farming for availability, consistency, and food safety.”

AeroFarms claims to be trailblazing with its proprietary technology. One such initiative is with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, in partnership with Rutgers University, to identify stressors of leafy greens to optimize nutrition and taste. “This is ground-breaking work, and we are about to publish the results to help the broader agriculture community,” Oshima reveals.

Indoor growers are highly responsive too. Bowery works directly with retailers to determine what produce is most needed at any given time, and responds as requested to satisfy consumer demand. “We have flexibility and agility when it comes to meeting retailers’ unpredictable fulfilment needs during a crisis, like Covid-19,” explains Cugini. Bowery’s proprietary technology has enabled the company to ramp-up production to help keep more supermarket shelves stocked during the pandemic. “Our retail partners have increasingly turned to us, some doubling and tripling their previous orders, to help fill the void left on shelves by brands using traditional farming methods,” Cugini reveals.

Since indoor farms are unaffected by seasonality their offerings could be diversified. Bowery has begun experimenting with more than 100 types of produce, including non-leafy greens and herbs. “There’s strong potential to grow summer varieties in the winter, winter varieties during the summer, and everything in between,” points out Cugini.

Of course, trends in LED lighting, including declining costs and efficiency improvements, have made indoor farming increasingly possible. What’s more, indoor farmers can grow more efficiently, and with fewer resources. “However, LED lighting on its own isn’t enough,” Cugini adds. “In order to grow the highest quality produce consistently, and at a price at or below field-grown products, we need to also leverage innovation in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as the decline in cost of storing and processing data.”

Marketing Support

New Jersey produce has long benefitted from the ‘Jersey Fresh’ marketing program. Coordinated by NJDA, this year’s promotions began in April, and run through the growing season. “Retailers know when they source from New Jersey growers, they are tapping into a powerful brand with decades of history. And they’re appealing to consumers associating New Jersey products with freshness and quality,” points out Beaver of SVI.

Whole Foods Market carries produce with Jersey Fresh branding, including tomatoes, peaches and blueberries. “We believe offering local New Jersey produce strengthens the relationship customers have with their food, and where it comes from,” notes Brady of Whole Foods Market Northeast Region.

Despite the pandemic, the NJDA will continue to offer to supermarkets Jersey Fresh point-of-purchase materials such as banners, price cards, and aprons to enable shoppers to identify the local produce they demand, now more than ever. “One aspect that will see some change, especially early in the season, is more digital and on-line marketing as there is significantly less traffic on New Jersey’s roads,” shares NJDA’s Fisher. “As the state begins to re-open, we will continue with our traditional advertising on radio and on digital billboards on major roadways throughout the state. The last two years we have also featured advertising with flyovers along New Jersey’s beaches.”

Jersey Fruit, marketed by Jersey Fruit Cooperative Association, is another well-known emblem promoted along the east coast. The cooperative’s 15 grower-members represent the majority of New Jersey’s wholesale stone fruit producers, and a significant portion of the state’s wholesale blueberry production. Members benefit from enhanced product marketing, and the exchange of best practices, plus food safety training and access to packaging solutions.

Meanwhile, the NJPPC will work closely with the NJDA (Jersey Fresh label), and with major wholesalers such as Donio (Top Crop), Larchmont Farms (Just Picked), and SVI (Jersey Fruit and Eastern Sunrise). “Our dollars will support primarily retail advertising on electronic billboards featuring Jersey Fresh, Facebook advertising, and a small amount of magazine advertising,” Frecon comments. “We will expand and totally revise our Jersey Peaches website, as well as do a few Instagram ads, and more YouTube advertising. We will also do trade advertising in produce magazines and newspapers.”