You wouldn't have known it by the record high temperatures and dry conditions this summer, but New Jersey is a temperate state, weather-wise.
As such, it’s just a fact of nature’s cycle that New Jersey’s fresh produce season will come to a close in late November and gear up again in March, with the first field-grown produce usually available by May.
That is a challenge for our produce industry because retailers, restaurants and institutions want to feature locally grown items year round because "Jersey Fresh" is appealing to customers seeking high-quality produce. Naturally, our farmers are constantly looking to expand their offerings.
So how can we keep the “Jersey Fresh” brand in front of consumers when winter sets in?
One answer is “Made With Jersey Fresh.” By turning fresh-market produce in- season into prepared items that can be stored and used over the winter, New Jersey farmers are increasingly interested in seeing the newest of our “Jersey” brands on consumers’ tables, regardless of the time of year.
These items can range from pies made with Jersey fruits to frozen entrees featuring any number of Jersey-produced vegetables. As with the fresh- market program, the ingredients will have to meet standards of quality to ensure the continued high regard of any product bearing the words “Jersey Fresh.”
This effort will help extend the number of months our own farmers’ products are getting to consumers. Anyone who enjoys fresh-market Jersey sweet corn in the growing season will no doubt be happy to see this local favorite pop up in the frozen-food section of the supermarket. Fans of Jersey tomatoes will enjoy seeing them turned into zesty salsa in a jar.
You will also find these prepared items being offered by the restaurant or diner around the corner.
It’s an idea that’s been germinating for some time with farmers from around our state venturing into the world of prepared foods. It was a natural to expand the successful “Jersey Fresh” branding to these new items. Foodstuffs identified with the “Made With Jersey Fresh” logo will benefit from the same brand identity, and customers will know that those products are made with the freshest, best-tasting local ingredients.
With New Jersey’s large close-in market (sandwiched between Boston and Washington) and with a sizeable food-processing sector, our farms are close to both fresh-market customers and processors in search of ingredients. Developing an even greater market for processing will spur even more demand for the fine produce our farmers grow.
Another area that will benefit from this development will be New Jersey’s farm-to-school initiative. In the past, we’ve worked to connect our schools and farms, but it hasn’t helped that school is out of session when our farmers are in the height of their season. Even though we now distribute more than 800,000 pounds of locally grown fruits and vegetables to our schools, expanding that amount is difficult due to school not being in session during the climax of our growing season.
However, with “Made With,” the bounty from our farms can be turned into products that are just as appreciated in the cafeteria in December as they would be in June. To further that goal, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and Rutgers University’s Food Innovation Center have secured a USDA grant to develop items featuring Jersey Fresh products for use in the National School Lunch Program.
We will work with the Food Innovation Center to develop single-serving, innovative items that will meet nutritional and cost requirements and be derived from the fruits and vegetables harvested during our produce season. We’ll also evaluate the potential for offering such items through vending machines in schools. This will enhance the model school nutrition policy the department implemented in 2006, which removed high-fat and high-sugar items from cafeterias and vending machines in schools.
Whether in our schools, at retailers or in restaurants, innovations in using produce from our farms for “Made With Jersey Fresh” items will help keep New Jersey agricultural products on consumers’ plates longer throughout the year.
(Douglas Fisher is New Jersey’s secretary of agriculture.)