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New Jersey growers digging out and business is slow due to Hurricane Irene

by Christina DiMArtino | August 30, 2011

On Aug. 29, the day following Hurricane Irene's determined scathing path from North Carolina north along the eastern coastline, most of the Northeast agricultural industry was just beginning to assess the damage that the winds and heavy rains caused to crops and business in general.

Even after the storm had weakened to a tropical storm over New Jersey, it continued to deliver winds strong enough to blow fruit off trees and flood farmlands.

For millions, it meant power outages, and for retail grocers and restaurants, that meant keeping their doors locked until power could be restored.

"The market itself escaped damage," Tony Vitrano, president of Tony Vitrano Co., a major produce distributor located on the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup, MD, told The Produce News Aug. 29. "For us, it was business as usual -- except for the fact that things are very slow today. Reports are that as many as 800,000 people are without power, and that translates into retailers and restaurants not being able to open their doors for business. We're also seeing a lot of uprooted trees and some scattered debris, but we need power restored in able to start rolling out fresh produce again."

New Jersey also suffered massive power outages. Al Murray, New Jersey assistance secretary of agriculture, said that state agriculture officials planned to meet on Monday afternoon to assess crop damage.

"We do know that it's going to be mid- to end of week before growers can get into their fields to fully assess their damage," said Mr. Murray. "Some roads are closed, and that will prevent some people from reaching their fields until they are reopened. We're in the dig-out process now."

Mr. Murray had spoken to some farmers and was told that some sweet corn was blown over.

"Fortunately, that doesn't kill the plant," he added. "But it does mean that they'll have to hand harvest instead of machine harvest. That, of course, adds to their production costs."

Others reported that their fields were in standing water, and Mr. Murray expected that would cause some issues. Plants sucking up too much water can affect quality.

"Farmers will have to intensify their spraying to ward off diseases," he said. "We're also hearing that a lot of peaches were blown off trees, and that's really unfortunate because they are the wonderful late-season varieties that are so prized in New Jersey."

Mr. Murray also heard that some cranberry bogs were inundated with water, and they do not like water at this point in the growing stage. Farmers, he added, were busy pumping out their bogs on Monday.

"We think there will be some effect to tomatoes, squashes and peppers," he said. "Farmers will have to work on a tight spraying schedule.

"New Jersey growers do have an advantage, however," Mr. Murray continued. "We have sandy loam soil, which drains very well. In a storm that delivered this magnitude of water, this is an advantage to farmers."

He stressed that much of the word of mouth that was spreading on Monday was speculation and that an accurate assessment would not be known until the end of the week.

"If there's an upside to a storm of this level, it is that you have some notice with a hurricane," he said. "As soon as they knew that they were in the path of the storm, farmers started harvesting everything they possibly could, so a lot of the crops were brought in before Irene hit."

He said that power outages are heavy and widespread in the state, but noted that the power companies in New Jersey are fantastic at getting people back on line quickly.

"Power outages can be a real problem for growers who need refrigeration," he said. "Irene was predicted to be a lot worse, and fortunately it was weakened when it came ashore in the Carolinas."

Mr. Murray added that over 1 million people in the state were evacuated.

"It could have been much worse, and we're grateful that it was not," he said.