Bill Nardelli Jr. (from left), vice president of sales for Nardelli Bros. Inc.; Bill Nardelli, president; and Jimmy Nardelli II, vice president of production, visit one of the company’s fields. New Jersey growers of romaine lettuce came into a market with low prices due to an ongoing E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region. Many consumers stayed away from romaine altogether. ( Courtesy Nardelli Produce )

Yuma is a four-letter word for some New Jersey romaine growers.

The hangover effect from the foodborne illness outbreak linked to Yuma, Ariz.-grown lettuce dealt an early blow to New Jersey lettuce growers this spring, but Garden State growers reported good growing conditions and a mostly positive outlook in late May.

New Jersey romaine lettuce traded at $10-12 per carton for cartons of 24 heads at the Philadelphia wholesale market on May 25 this year, down several dollars from the same time a year ago.

“We spend a lot of money and time on food safety and knowing where your product came from in the field and through the cooling and the transportation. They didn’t allude to any of that, then they reported they couldn’t even identify where the illness came from,” said Bill Nardelli, president of Nardelli Bros. Inc., Cedarville, N.J.

Media reports seemed to cause consumer and buyer hesitation and hurt New Jersey growers, he said.

“The way it was handled, they threw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

Early rain took a toll on some lettuce fields but publicity about the E. coli outbreak linked to Yuma romaine lettuce beat up New Jersey growers worse, said John Formisano Jr., partner in John Formisano Produce, Buena, N.J.

“Nobody knows where (the tainted lettuce) came from, and we were just coming in and the price went to hell,” he said.

 

Recovery

Even with the rocky start, growers said many months of strong New Jersey supply remain to be picked.

Due to cold weather in March and April and a lot of water in April, vegetable crops got off to a slow start, said Richard VanVranken, county extension agent for Atlantic County for Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service. Rain in May delayed planting of some crops.

After rain delays earlier in May, Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers, Cedarville, said May 25 that the firm was playing catch up with planting bell peppers, cucumbers and corn.

The firm expects to start its sweet corn harvest in mid-July.

Nardelli said the company expects good quality, despite some setbacks with cool and rainy conditions earlier in May.

“We are a 120-year-old company,” he said. “We have seen very hot and dry and very cool and damp — you see the swings,” he said.

He said most items were running a week to 10 days later than typical.

 

Fruit

On the fruit front, peach and blueberry crops look good in New Jersey, said Bob Von Rohr, marketing and customer relations manager for Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J.

Blueberries begin in mid-June and run through the end of July, and peaches will start the first of July and run through September.

 

Local advantages

Marketing New Jersey produce is a winning proposition, shippers said.

“Local demand is exceptional,” Nardelli said. “We are so close to all these metro areas and the awareness of our Jersey Fresh program is high.”

Nardelli said the Jersey Fresh marketing tag line is “fresher by miles” and that is reflected in quicker arrivals compared with West Coast produce, he said.

“It is not three, four or five days old when it arrives to the shelf,” he said.

“A lot of our product is harvested and delivered the same day or the next day,” he said.

Consumers appreciate the freshness and flavor of New Jersey produce, he said.

The state’s growers enjoy close proximity to Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Baltimore — not to mention New Jersey’s own population of 9 million people, said Daniel Ward, director of the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Bridgeton, N.J.

New Jersey’s climate and soils are very good, with frost and freeze damage less often than the Southeast, he said.

The Atlantic Ocean moderates hot and cold weather and allows growers to produce a multitude of specialty crops.

That means big opportunities for the state’s growers.

At the same time, New Jersey is the most densely populated and most urbanized state, and the cost of production is high, he said.

“To be successful you have to grow high value (crops) or have some way to manage the high costs,” he said.

“Our ag producers have to get good prices and really have to grow high value crops,” he said.

New Jersey growers of field corn and soybeans may disappear within a generation, he said.

 

Hot topics

Like most regions of the country, transportation and immigration are hot topics for the New Jersey produce industry.

Some growers reported increased use of the H-2A program for guest agricultural workers.

VanVranken said labor will be a continuing issue in New Jersey, related to availability and cost and the emergence of mechanical harvesting.

“Mechanization is coming about and that will be a major change we will see,” he said. “It may not be five years, but certainly within 10 years there will be (increased mechanization),” he said.

Trucking is a here-and-now issue.

Though New Jersey is within a 300- to 400-mile radius of some of the biggest cities in the country, finding drivers for produce trucks isn’t easy, Nardelli said.

“We are adding trucks to our fleets, and we are having a difficult time, regardless of pay scale, filling the equipment with drivers,” he said.

Electronic logging devices and hours-of-service regulations compel drivers to operate in high congestion periods where they may only advance a few miles in a hour.

The logging devices are forcing drivers to drive in high-capacity times of the day and in rush-hour traffic, and, consequently, their productivity decreases 30% to 40%, he said.

“Allowing them to take a two-hour break at a time when they are making 8 to 10 miles an hour versus when they could get on the highway and manage 50 miles an hour — that’s a detriment to the industry,” he said.

“If you could pause that clock, not to drive over 11 hours, but to be able to pause if the truck is sitting still in a rest area, so he could pause his clock and not be burning up part of the 14 hours if he is not operating his vehicle, that would be critical,” he said.

 
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