Despite the challenges a wetter climate can give organic producers, New Jersey growers are still investing in organic agriculture.
Weather, weeds and fungi make the task of growing organically tough, said Richard VanVranken, cooperative extension agent in Atlantic County for Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
But growers are being drawn into organic, he said.
“I got a call (in May) from a farmer that had been resisting it for a long time, but he said, ‘I’ve got to try in order to fill orders or potentially lose a couple of customers who are looking for that as an option,’” he said.
In statistics released this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that New Jersey in 2016 had 53 certified organic farms that produced $8.8 million in certified organic products on about 1,500 acres.
That was somewhat lower than 2015, when the USDA reported 75 organic farms reported sales of $11.27 million from 2,349 acres.
The USDA report said that of the 1,521 acres of certified land in New Jersey in 2016, 1,323 acres were cropland and 198 acres were pasture.
The report said the top two certified commodities sold in New Jersey were “other vegetables and fresh herbs” grown under protection with sales valued at $1.7 million.
Other highlights from the USDA report:
- Organic tomatoes grown in the open field ranked second in sales, with 2016 certified organic sales valued at $1.4 million.
- Grown on 33 farms, total value of all New Jersey organic vegetables from open fields in 2016 totaled $5.4 million.
- In 2016, 17 berry growers in New Jersey sold $680,000 worth of organic berries.
- For tomatoes grown under protection, 9 organic farms reported $909,000 in sales in 2016.
- USDA shipment statistics show that New Jersey shipped about 300,000 pounds of organic blueberries in 2016, unchanged from 2015, and only 1% of the 30 million pounds of conventional blueberries the state shipped in 2016.
The USDA did not report organic shipment numbers for other commodities.
'I said it was going to be a fad'
One long-time conventional grower said organic is long past being considered a fad.
“We are big conventional growers here and have been for 120 years,” said Bill Nardelli, president of Nardelli Bros. Inc., Cedarville, N.J.
“To be quite honest, I’m an old dinosaur, and I said it was going to be a fad. I also said the Internet was going to be a fad.”
Nardelli readily admits he was wrong on both counts, as he said his two sons have educated him about the staying power of organic produce.
Retailers are devoting more space to organic produce, and Nardelli Bros. has responded by investing more in organic production.
Retailers now ask for more organic options, he said.
Though very small in organic production now, Nardelli said he wants his company to grow with the trend.
“We are going to devote a portion of our operations to organic,” he said. “We increase a little bit every year and are increasing for the last three or four years now.”
Demand for organic blueberries is growing every year, said Bob Von Rohr, marketing and customer relations manager for Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J.
The company markets the Big Buck label for organic blueberries.
Successful diversified growers are experimenting with organic production because customers have asked them, said Daniel Ward, director of Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Bridgeton, N.J.
“If you have got so many customers asking you for organic, (growers) want to grow some,” he said.
“The challenge of growing so many of our species in a humid climate like this, we don’t know enough and have the right tools to do it organically,” he said.
Ward said the organic rule should evolve and be more applicable to Eastern agriculture.
“We haven’t mastered what we need to be able to produce the top quality clean, fresh fruit under the conditions here, and the same goes for most of the vegetables, but there is continued interest and incremental progress in those methods and breeding,” he said.