Though a physically small state, New Jersey remains a key supplier to U.S. markets in the Northeast.

The Trenton-based New Jersey Department of Agriculture opens its 28th season of promoting The Garden State’s produce through working with retailers and wholesalers. Point-of-sale material, 3x5-foot banners, bin wraps, stickers and price cards help merchandise the annual harvest.

The Jersey Fresh program spreads the word about New Jersey produce through trade print advertisements and radio advertisements that cover the state and also air in neighboring metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia.

Al Murray, assistant secretary of agriculture, said Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher remains a vocal supporter of the state’s produce.

Fisher, a former retailer, remains a hands-on agency director who likes to visit supermarkets and retail produce officials and encourage them to promote the state’s products, Murray said.

The secretary visits numerous chains including Malvern, Pa.-based Acme Markets Inc.; Kings Food Markets Inc., Parsippany, N.J.; and Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y.

Murray said the agency plans to kick off the season through an annual Eastern Produce Council meeting and program it sponsors scheduled for June 12 at Demarest Farms in Hillsdale, N.J.

“Because of our location, we’re able to network quite a bit through the council meetings,” Murray said.

“One of the great challenges we face is as our season hums along, we’re doing great. Then our first frost hits and we’re done for the year, so retailers have to turn to other sources.

“Come spring, our challenge is to battle ourselves back into the market again. That’s why our secretary makes personalized visits, to remind people we’re back in the game.”

The agency promotes the Jersey Fresh program to retailers throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

The New Jersey locale remains critical as many Eastern retailers base their operations in or near New Jersey, Murray said.

The state’s second most important market is Boston with eastern Canada constituting the state’s third biggest buying region.

The agency visits retailers through industry meetings in New England and Canada, Murray said.

About 95% of the state’s produce ships to the three regions with a fair amount shipped to Florida, he said.

Price cards remain the backbone of the agency’s retail promotions. Murray said a retailer can advertise heavily but if a shopper can’t find a product identified as Jersey Fresh, the store will lose sales.

He said stores run out of materials and reorder, which Murray said shows the level of retail interest in the promotions.

Interest in locally grown produce fuels demand for Jersey-grown produce, he said.

“What has happened is because local has become so big, these retailers have to have locally grown in their produce section,” Murray said.

“That’s how big this trend is. This has gone from them supporting the local farmers because it’s the right thing to do now to being the right business thing to do because consumers are asking them for local grown.

“Local has become a very powerful marketing venue. The retailers realize it and they support Jersey Fresh more than they ever have.”

While various lettuces, leafy greens, cabbage, asparagus, green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, blueberries and peaches remain the largest production items,

New Jersey grows up to 120 varieties of fresh produce, Murray said.

He said the state is one of the top producers of blueberries, greens, herbs, spinach, peaches and cranberries.

Supermarket support remains strong.

“Over the 28 years we’ve had this program, retailers have always been fantastic and supportive of it,” Murray said.

“We couldn’t ask any more from them.”

The agency’s budget remains at $150,000, similar to recent years. In the past, the state invested up to $1.2 million in the program.

During times of steep state budget cuts, Murray said the state relies on support from U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop grants to help complement the agency’s promotional efforts.