New Jersey growers are gearing up for high demand for locally grown produce, more farmers markets and an increased presence on retailer shelves this season.

“What we are really selling is health,” said Frank Dandrea, president of Dandrea Produce, Vineland, N.J.

“The closer you can deliver a product from harvest to table, the higher the nutrient value of the product that they are eating.”

Dandrea said Dandrea Produce has retail customers with fixed local programs and marketing campaigns that promote healthfulness.

“People are more health conscious, they work out in gyms, and run and jog to maintain a higher quality of life,” he said. “The fruit and vegetable industry runs hand in hand with that.”

Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton, said retailers are also looking to add local produce as a way of becoming greener. By cutting back on cross-country shipments, supermarkets can reduce their carbon footprint and promote green.

“You are providing a product that is fresher,” he said. “The opportunity is there, but it is going to be something that is demanded from the people, and, basically, supermarkets are going to provide what their customers want.”

J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer in the Cedarville, N.J., office of Santa Sweet Inc., said, “Chains want to improve their carbon footprint. Everyone wants to improve their carbon footprint, no one more than us.”

Farmers markets

With 140 community markets in New Jersey, the popularity of direct retailing by growers remains high in the Garden State as more growers look for ways to increase their earning potential.

“The bottom line of the growth of farmers markets has been farmers are looking for avenues for direct sales to avoid the huge loss of revenue between middlemen,” Casella said.

“New Jersey has one of the more densely populated states. We have opportunities to access lots of consumers. It’s a natural fit through community farm markets or on-the-farm farm markets.”

Casella said growers are capitalizing on the high demand for homegrown produce and realizing their produce doesn’t have to go through two or three middlemen before it reaches consumers.

“They have access right to the consumer for the retail dollar, rather than the wholesale dollar, and the consumer is getting a fresher and potentially cheaper product because of that,” he said.

“We still continue to see community farm markets grow ... all based on location.”

Casella explained the hurdle many New Jersey farmers face is competition with large suppliers from California who have an entrenched market share and the volume to consistently sell wholesale.

“Will the consumer outweigh the control the suppliers have to allow smaller growers the opportunity to get in the supermarkets?” he said. “Then, you have to factor in the discussion on food safety.”

The food safety challenge Casella refers to is obtaining expensive third-party audits that are required by chain stores. The prohibitive cost is influencing more New Jersey grower to retail on the farm or at farmers markets instead of at chain stores.

“Some have ventured into scaled back models to get more into the farmers market retail-type businesses, putting in road stands,” he said.

“There has been a strong movement of farmers trying to get directly to the consumers, whereas they were once completely wholesale and they have changed their business to cater to the community market type farm sales.”

Greener lifestyle

Kurt Alstede, general manager for Alstede Farms LLC, Chester, N.J., has been retailing for nearly 30 years at a location just 40 miles west of New York City.

“A lot of people’s philosophy is supporting a greener lifestyle, reducing carbon footprint, buying local … and supporting the local economy,” he said.

“There absolutely is a surge in buying local and buying from a local producer rather than from a supermarket. We have certainly been doing a lot to take advantage of this trend.”

Pegi Adam, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said the buy local movement has the momentum to challenge the large commercial farms from out of state.

“People are even more conscious of buy local than ever, almost to the detriment of the big factory farms because they are getting such bad PR,” she said.

Bill Nardelli, president of Nardelli Bros. Inc., Cedarville, N.J., agreed the movement to local farm stands and farm markets is big, though he said it is not Nardelli Bros.’ niche.

“The product that you’re going to find in our retailer is every bit as fresh as what you’re going to find in (direct farm) retailers, and it is cooled properly. That’s also a big advantage,” he said.