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The state's 2010 fall produce season is underway and should be highlighted by fair to good quantities of high-quality produce for wholesale and retail purchase.

To understand the fall season, one needs to look at the extraordinary weather that New Jersey farmers have had to deal with to produce this fall crop.

New Jersey experienced the third wettest winter in history and the wettest March ever. The state experienced the warmest spring in history and the warmest five-month stretch in history through July. This warm and wet spring helped crops to get a good start to the season. This early start to the season, though, means that summer produce normally still available in the fall may be less available than normal. The peach season, for example, started a week or two early in July and will finish in mid-September rather than being available for most of the month.

The extremely hot and dry summer weather, though, has had a detrimental effect on the season as pollination problems, blossom burnoff and heat stress caused decreased production levels and smaller sizes for most produce items. In addition, sequential plantings of produce items all ripened at the same time, resulting in a supply gap for a couple of weeks in mid-August. Farmers found themselves between plantings for items that are normally in late- season supply.

Despite this hot, dry weather and high water demands, water reserves in New Jersey remained at adequate levels due to the surplus precipitation that fell during the past fall and winter. Although Jersey farmers can irrigate like no others, this effort came at a physical and financial expense.

New Jersey enjoys the productivity of a great diversity of fruits and vegetables due to its moderate climate and inherent "Jersey Fresh" qualities. New Jersey’s 11 principal fresh-market vegetables are tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers, cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, eggplant, escarole, snap beans and asparagus. The five principal fresh-market fruits are strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apples and cranberries.

New Jersey growers are still harvesting declining volumes of their summer produce items such as sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, peaches, zucchini and yellow squash. Warm-season herbs such as basil and mint are also finishing. All of these products are in less supply than normal due to the early wet and hot growing season, and will be done at frost by mid-October. New Jersey growers harvest cooler-season vegetables in the spring and fall. The fall season harvests of spinach, escarole-endive, lettuces, turnips, radishes, white potatoes and sweet potatoes are starting about the middle of September. Other vegetables that prefer somewhat cooler temperatures but can survive the summer heat in less quantity — such as cabbage, collards, kale, beets, swiss chard, pickles, cucumbers, radishes, Butternut squash and Acorn squash, and herbs such as parsley, dill, coriander, arugula and cilantro — are harvesting very well.

Almost all New Jersey apples are sold soon after harvest and are not stored over time in controlled-atmosphere conditions like western apples. Jersey apples begin their harvest in mid-September with the Jonathan and Courtland varieties and are followed by Red Delicious, Empire, Jonagold, and McCoun in late month. Golden Delicious, Rome and Stayman Winesap start harvesting in early October. Braeburn, Fuji and Granny Smith will start in mid- to late October.

(For more on New Jersey fall produce, see the Sept. 13, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)

(Bill Walker is with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.)