Organics draw mixed reviews among Jersey growers

05/26/2011 04:15:00 PM
Andy Nelson

Some New Jersey organic grower-shippers are increasing their organic produce acreage, while others say the trend is overrated.

After years of remaining at about the same level, in 2011 there are three new organic produce growers and several new handlers, said Justine Cook, technical specialist for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, Hillsborough, which provides technical services helping growers transition from convention to organic production.

Vegetables continue to be a more popular organic option than fruits for Jersey growers, Cook said.

“Fruits can be challenging in the Northeast” because of fungi and other problems, Cook said. “Orchards in the Northeast are much more difficult than in drier climates.”

New farmers markets in the Garden State and requests from distributors for organic are among the forces driving category growth in the state, Cook said.

“There have been more opportunities for marketing” organic, she said.

For the first time ever, Fresh Wave Fruit & Produce, Vineland, N.J., will have a consistent supply of organic plain and curly parsley, cilantro and cooking greens, said Nick Giordano, the company’s vice president.

“Before, it was hit or miss,” Giordano said.

Fresh Wave works with one organic grower, Giordano said. This year, he decided to focus his organic production on those few core items he knows best, from his conventional program.

While Fresh Wave will have consistent supplies, that doesn’t mean demand for organic is going through the roof, Giordano said.

“The organic thing is such a mystery to everyone,” he said. “It’s touted to be a lot more popular than it is. It’s been a myth for at least the past 15 years.”

Cedarville, N.J.-based Sheppard Farms Inc., the growing arm of  Cedarville-based Eastern Fresh Growers Inc., is transitioning more land this year to organic, said Tom Sheppard, Eastern Fresh’s president.

Bell peppers are probably the company’s top organic vegetable commodity, Sheppard said, followed by round and grape tomatoes, squash, eggplant and romaine, red and green leaf and other lettuces.

The company also grows a few organic strawberries, Sheppard said.

Glassboro, N.J.-based Sunny Valley International has just one organic blueberry grower, but his acreage is increasing, said Phil Neary, Sunny Valley’s director of operations and grower relations.

The company expects to market about 65,000 to 75,000 half-pint flats of organic New Jersey-grown blueberries this year, Neary said.

Cedarville, N.J.-based Nardelli Bros. Inc. doesn’t grow organic produce, but it does market organic for some area growers, said Bill Nardelli, president.

“The awareness of organics seems to be increasing,” he said.

Even though Nardellis Bros. doesn’t grow organics, the company does use as few pesticides as it can, Nardelli said.

“We’re farming with a minimal amount because they’re so costly,” he said.

That’s a win-win for the company and for its customers.

“We save money, and we don’t have the residue levels,” he said.

Demand for New Jersey-grown organic fruits and vegetables is growing, said Jerry Frecon, agricultural agent at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Clayton.

But in terms of overall volumes, organic’s piece of the pie remains miniscule, and for good reason, Frecon said.

“It’s a very, very small part — we just have too much pest pressure,” he said.

There are no New Jersey organic peach growers that Frecon is aware of, and the few organic apple producers sell what they grow directly to consumers, he said.

Making it even harder for organic growers this season, Frecon said, is the likely appearance of the brown marmorated stink bug, a nasty new pest that made its  debut in the Garden State last August.

The pest eats all Jersey-grown fruits and many of the state’s vegetables, he said.

  Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton, said more New Jersey growers looking to diversify their offerings are adding a small organic program, maybe four or five acres of production.

But much of that product is being sold at farmstands or through other direct-to-consumer marketing, indicating the small size of organic’s niche in the state, Casella said.

“I would say there’s growth, but it’s small growth,” he said.

Organic is easier for smaller New Jersey growers, who may decide to grow a 10-acre plot, said Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberry Inc., Hammonton, N.J.

“Some dabble in it, but with the size of operation we have, it has to be a separate entity altogether, and we haven’t gone in that direction,” he said.



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