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This is the year that New Jersey's agricultural community planned to celebrate 25 years of Jersey Fresh, what has become one of the nation's better agricultural branding programs. Instead, the Garden State's farmers and fishermen are watching Gov. Jon Corzine abandon the popular branding program by severing the state's funding.

At a time when America's first lady and secretary of agriculture are planting gardens on the grounds of the White House and Washington Mall, and consumers are seeking locally produced food, New Jersey is stepping away from the branding programs that champion the high quality products our farmers and fishermen harvest.

Jersey Fresh, Jersey Seafood and Jersey Grown are branding programs that position New Jersey products in our state and also the regional marketplace, which includes eastern Canada, New England and the mid-Atlantic states. These are the programs that keep our seafood, landscape plants and, especially, blueberries, tomatoes and other produce, popular.

Theses programs have standards that are codified in New Jersey regulation, ensuring the integrity of the products sold. They also give consumers the confidence that the products they are buying are produced or harvested by New Jersey family-owned businesses that care about what they offer.

Twenty five years ago, polling showed that less than 10 percent of consumers recognized Jersey produce in the marketplace. This information led to the creation of the "Jersey Fresh" brand. Today, everyone looks for the "Jersey Fresh" logo to know they are buying New Jersey's fresh, nutritious and great tasting produce.

The promotion of the brand is a unique public and private partnership with the state's secretary of agriculture as its leading advocate, joined by food retailers, chefs, farm market managers, farmers and fishermen. The partnership works. In 2003, a Rutgers University study illustrated that the economic return on the program benefits not only the farmer but also the state. In total, each dollar spent on Jersey Fresh promotion resulted in $54.49 of increased economic output in the state.

Public efforts to retain farmland have consistently received support at the ballot box, allowing 175,000 acres of the agricultural working landscape of New Jersey to be preserved. Last year, the support for keeping the New Jersey Department of Agriculture definitively illustrated the public's support for agriculture. New community farmers markets are being created at more than double the national average, also indicating that Garden State residents want to see agriculture as a permanent part of our state.

The Jersey Fresh program has always focused on linking consumers with producers. The Women, Infant & Children and Senior Farmers Market coupons and, this year, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamp Program) funds will allow the participants of these programs to have access to fresh local produce. Now more than ever, a diet that includes fruits and vegetables should be available to everyone -- the poor and hungry as well as those with the means to purchase our state's bounty.

I urge the legislature to continue funding the public part of this 25-year partnership that is a source of pride for our state. They can join our farmers and fishermen promoting the great products which are harvested in our state and consumers that look for food and agricultural products produced close to home. Together we can keep our Garden State green and growing.

(Charles M Kuperus served as New Jersey's secretary of agriculture from 2002 to Dec. 31, 2008.)