The Jersey Fresh marketing program run by the state’s agriculture department suffered heavy cuts last year and has had to make big adjustments to keep recognition of the label growing.
Facing another tight fiscal year, officials say funding will remain steady this year, but produce suppliers are hoping for more.
“As far as this season goes, Jersey Fresh is a big concern,” said Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton.
“They don’t have quite the resources that they’ve had in the past due to the state budgets over the years, but hopefully the name and some local promotion will keep the product in demand.”
The Jersey Fresh budget, which once topped $1.2 million, has been slashed over recent years to its current low point of $150,000.
“It was a breathtaking cut, but Gov. Christie shows signs of being pro-agriculture,” said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
Furey said that in an atmosphere of “absolute fiscal austerity” throughout the state’s budget, many in the department are thankful that further cuts have not been made.
“It was cut severely in the previous two or three years,” he said. “What that $150,000 allows is enforcement upgrading and some limited continuity with point-of-sales materials, which is important to keep that continuity in the program.”
Casella agreed that the new administration of Gov. Chris Christie has expressed support for the Department of Agriculture.
“The agricultural aspect of the operations budget wasn’t cut as drastically as it has been in the past, and he has made comments that he would like to restore the Jersey Fresh funding,” Casella said.
“I’m not really optimistic that it’s going to return, but I definitely think we have the governor’s support.”
Casella explained the state has been successful getting the Jersey Fresh program to the point of being an icon for the country, but he said continued funding is needed to keep the public aware that Jersey Fresh produce is available.
“It’s a program that needs constant monitoring, funding and plain advertising to the public that it’s available,” he said.
“There is a big push for local produce but that is … not really clearly defined, whereas ‘Jersey Fresh’ specifically describes it as from New Jersey.”
Casella said that translates to cuts in advertising, principally on television.
“That was scaled back to radio. Now the radio has been scaled back to some print media,” he said, noting that the program still participates in some regional trade shows in New England and the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit.
Furey offered some hope that the state could again win funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grant program for specialty crops.
“Traditionally, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture has created opportunities for fruit and vegetable nurseries from New Jersey’s share of that on the order of $400,000,” he said.
Furey said in years past, the department has kept about half of the appropriations, and given the other half in matching grants to local commodity associations who in turn have used it for Jersey Fresh-type initiatives.
“Between escaping the scalpel further on the $150,000 and the money from the specialty crops, we think we are holding our own with an eye on future restoration in upcoming years,” he said.
Growers weigh in
New Jersey suppliers are big proponents of the Jersey Fresh program, which they say has been especially helpful as consumers look for more locally grown products.
“We think there’s some good recognition, particularly in the Northeast. People really look for the Jersey Fresh logo,” said Art Galletta, president and co-owner of Atlantic Blueberry Co. Inc., Hammonton, N.J.
“Consumers ask for Jersey Fresh produce because they know it’s fresher.”
J.M. Procacci, chief operationing officer in the Cedarville, N.J., office of Plant City, Fla.-based Santa Sweets Inc. said that, as one of the top marketers for Jersey Fresh products in the state, the logo goes a long way for his business.
“We put Jersey Fresh on everything we grow,” he said.
Tim Wetherbee, sales manager for Diamond Blueberry Inc., Hammonton, N.J., said cash-strapped farmers rely on the state’s marketing efforts to supplement advertising that they themselves or their suppliers cannot afford.
“It still helps, all the promoting that they do with the advertising,” he said.
“Last year, there were programs that we generally benefit from that were cut or were limited, but one way or another they try to make an attempt to promote the product.”
Wetherbee said the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council helps somewhat, but a combined effort of multiple parties makes a greater effect.
“We have our own council and do our own promotion as well, but the Jersey Fresh program has always been a big plus for us,” he said.
“Farmers are up for anything that puts an extra dollar in their pocket,” said Peter Bylone, general manager of the Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction Association Inc., Vineland, N.J.