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Despite challenges, high-quality fall crop to shine through in New Jersey

by Bill Walker | September 14, 2011

The 2011 fall produce season is under way and should be highlighted by fair quantities of high-quality produce available for wholesale and retail purchase. To understand New Jersey’s fall season, one needs to take a look at the extreme weather that its farmers have had to deal with to produce its fall crop. This is the second season in a row that severe weather has had a major impact.

Last year, New Jersey experienced the third-wettest winter in recorded history and the wettest March. This was followed by the warmest April through September six-month period in recorded history.

Although this season started normally enough, New Jersey experienced the warmest July in recorded history, with a record of 21 days hitting 90 degrees or higher. Although most summer crops prefer dryer conditions, hot and stressful July growing conditions caused some pollination issues, blossom burn off and heat stress. This caused decreased production levels and smaller sizes for most produce items. In addition, sequential plantings of produce items tended to ripen closer in 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.

August was the wettest month ever in New Jersey, and that was even before Hurricane Irene increased that new record amount. Substantial rain onto fields that were already water logged caused flooding, and standing water in areas resulted in quality and shelf-life issues for tomatoes and early-fall produce.

Rainfall amounts and wind speeds varied greatly around the state, though, so the extent of damage from those forces has been variable.

Soils and topography also have had an impact. Lighter soils drained better than heavier, water-logged soils. Low-lying areas tended to maintain excess water.

There were some early-fall supply shortages because farmers couldn’t get heavy machinery into fields and were forced to wait a few days to dry out before going back out into their fields. Many farmers picked as much of their crops as they could before the hurricane. Then, they hand picked as much of their crops as they could afterwards. Farmers were most concerned about two things: field disease conditions; and the wash out of young fall crops, particularly young lettuces and greens.

Record warmth in July coupled with record rains and Hurricane Irene in August meant that most summer produce that is normally available in the fall was less available than normal. Peach crops sustained only slight damage from August rains and Hurricane Irene, and will finish up in mid-September as usual.

New Jersey enjoys the productivity of a large variety 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. Its 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, also are finishing up. All of these products are in less supply than normal due to late wet weather 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, and white and sweet potatoes are starting about the middle of September. Other vegetables that prefer somewhat cooler temperatures and can survive the summer heat in less quantity such as cabbage, collards, kale, beets, Swiss chard, pickles, cucumbers, radishes, butternut 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. Its 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.

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