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NJ produce industry outlook for fall 2012

The 2012 fall produce season is underway and should be highlighted by good 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 extraordinary weather that its farmers have had to deal with to produce the fall crops. This is the third season in a row that weather has had a major effect on the season. This season is very similar to two years ago.

The third-warmest first quarter of the year got everything off to a early start in New Jersey. Spring also was drier than usual. This weather encouraged many growers’ abilities to get seed or transplant into the soil at earlier dates than most can remember. This encouraged more plowing and planting, and more gradual growing conditions and bee pollination. Most spring crops were planted earlier than normal and the warm growing conditions farmers enjoyed allowed produce to grow and be harvested at their historically earliest harvest dates.

As often seen in summer months, precipitation across New Jersey varied widely in July and, though there were numerous scattered thunderstorms throughout the month, it wasn't until mid-month that a widespread rainfall occurred. Since then, high temperatures and prolonged dryness have given way to more seasonally average temperatures (mid- to high 80s) and regular thunderstorms and showers.

The quality of all of fruits and vegetables is very good right now, as prolonged dry weather created Mediterranean growing conditions, not unlike those we experienced two summers ago. Dry conditions created ideal growing conditions for New Jersey farmers because they have the ability to irrigate well. It’s just that farmers have to spend much of their day dragging around irrigation equipment and incurring labor and utility costs to get everything watered properly.

There is much less disease and insect pressure during this kind of weather. The flavors of many produce items, especially fruits, seem to be more concentrated during dry weather. More delicate produce items such as herbs, greens, turnips and radishes were off volume due to the prolonged heat. Cukes and squash have seen some past blossom burn-off due to past heat and are in less supply then normal right now. In addition, sequential plantings of produce items tended to ripen closer in time resulting in some supply gaps for a couple of weeks in mid-August. Farmers found themselves between plantings for 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 fall.

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. Its 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 historically early this year, in early-July, so they will finish up in early-September as a result. 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, including 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.

Like the entire eastern half of the country, New Jersey suffered frost in late-April and then high winds and hail in late July this year. As a result, apple volume is off significantly this fall. Almost all New Jersey apples are sold soon after harvest and are not stored over time in controlled atmosphere conditions like western apples. New Jersey apples began harvest in late-August, with the Gala, McIntosh, Jonathan and Courtland varieties, and were followed by Red Delicious, Empire, Jonagold and McCoun in early month. Golden Delicious, Rome and Stayman Winesap start harvesting in mid- to late September. Braeburn, Fuji and Granny Smith will start in early-October.