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New Jersey’s fall 2013 produce industry outlook

The 2013 fall produce season is under way and should be highlighted by good quantities of high-quality produce available for wholesale and retail purchase. To understand our fall season, one needs to take a look at the extraordinary weather that our farmers have had to deal with to produce our fall crops. This is the fourth season in a row that extraordinary weather has had a major effect on our season.

Although April and May temperatures and precipitation were close to their long-term averages, cool overnight temperatures didn't help to raise our soil temperatures enough to hasten the development of spring crops or encourage the early planting of summer crops. These weather conditions helped to create great quality lettuces, greens, asparagus and strawberries, though the slowly warming season put us into a slightly delayed season schedule.

This year had the rainiest June on record, with little time between rainstorms to dry out well. Farmers on heavier soils had a hard time getting into their saturated fields to till or harvest. In the more-southern areas of the state, where most of the commercial industry is located, sandier and better-draining soils predominate and farmers were able to get out into their fields more often to cultivate and harvest. It was especially important that farmers had enough labor to hand harvest or cultivate produce in between raindrops; however, farm labor availability was erratic this season.

There also were some seed, plant and fertilizer washout as well as field disease issues due to all of the June rain. This created supply gaps and variability in quality occurring with greens, lettuces and herbs that were hard to cultivate or harvest due to the weather and sloppy field conditions.

The inability to plant and cultivate some summer crops during June also caused future supply gaps for farmers when their non-sequentially planted crops started to become available.

July was a mixed bag of weather, with periods of high temperatures being interrupted with less frequent but very substantial rain. According to New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson of Rutgers University, July marked yet another in a lengthening sequence of hot mid-summer months across New Jersey. Most notable this year was the frequency of unusually warm nighttime temperatures in July that struggled to drop below 70 degrees.

August saw below-average temperatures and average precipitation levels. The effects of June's record-breaking rain became very apparent as there were supply gaps due to lost production and non-sequentially planted crops. Tomatoes, peppers and sweet corn were all in much less supply than normal, with corresponding higher costs to consumers for available local produce.

The quality of all of our fruits and vegetables is good right now as seasonal weather has predominated recently. Farmers find themselves between plantings for some items that are normally in late-season supply. All of these affected produce items should start to return with some more volume as temperatures cool off and we get closer to the fall.

New Jersey enjoys 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. Our five principal fresh market fruits are strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apples and cranberries. New Jersey growers are still harvesting declining volumes of excellent quality summer produce. Peaches started normally this year in mid-July and will finish up in mid-September. Warm season herbs, such as basil and mint, are also finishing up. All of these products 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 in early September. Other vegetables that prefer somewhat cooler temperatures but can survive the summer heat in less quantity are harvesting very well, including cabbage, collards, kale, beets, Swiss chard, pickles, cucumbers, radishes, butternut and acorn squash, and herbs such as parsley, dill, coriander, arugula and cilantro.

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

Bill Walker works for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture