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Industry Viewpoint: Maintaining consumer confidence helps produce industry weather the storm

With two major hurricanes in the past two years, and this summer’s wild weather mood swings — from heavy rain for weeks on end to high temperatures nearing 100 — New Jersey has become fairly accustomed to questions about how the extreme weather is affecting our farmers.

We get questions from the press about it, from the farmers seeking help, from the consumers concerned that their favorite produce might be in short supply.

How we answer those questions requires a kind of schizophrenic approach. When we’re talking with our farmers, it does not necessarily lead to a productive conversation if we dismiss their concerns about the weather’s effect.

At the same time, if our messaging to the public carries too much doom and gloom, consumers may assume there’s little or no high-quality, locally grown produce in the market and not seek it out. If that occurs, it would further hurt farmers and our produce industry, who have worked hard through the extreme weather to bring our locally grown products to market.

How we handle that tightrope walk can be a huge factor in the success or failure for our produce industry for the season.

Case in point: When Superstorm Sandy ravaged New Jersey last October/November, one of the extension agents from a large produce-growing county reported to the department that unfounded rumors were spreading that the storm had “contaminated” some greens, which were still in the fields when the storm hit. If that became the story consumers saw, the entire crop statewide would more than likely have been shunned by shoppers.

After getting a more accurate picture of what actually had and hadn’t happened, we were able to craft a more balanced message that acknowledged that some farmers had experienced storm damage, but that others had perfectly fine produce headed to market. That kind of balanced approach became an integral part of our message to the public, a public already shaken by the storm’s effects in their own lives.

This summer, the extremes of rainy weather and high temperatures have led to a number of calls from the media about the extent to which farmers statewide have been affected. Again, while farmers’ hardships should not be ignored or dismissed, focusing too much on weather’s effect in broad, sweeping statements could greatly reduce consumer demand for our farmers’ products, simply because buyers would assume that what’s in the market may be inferior.

Many factors go into how we handle those questions. First, even for a small state, New Jersey can see wide variations in any given day’s weather from region to region. What may be a sunny, hot day in coastal Cape May, the state’s southeastern tip, may be a rainy day with high winds in the mountainous northwestern corner of Sussex County.

Secondly, even within a region, the same weather system will have different effects on different farms. A farmer who has invested great time and effort into devising ways to direct excessive rainwater away from his crops will not see nearly the effect sustained by the farmer who hasn’t undertaken that approach, because standing water is causing disease problems on crops that are low to the ground.

Likewise, a tree-fruit farmer would not see the same effect to his crops as would a farmer growing squash or pumpkins, simply because one’s product is much closer to the soggy ground than the other, rendering it more vulnerable to disease.

If it’s a question from the media, we have to first ask ourselves how much we can expect the reporter and his or her editors to understand about agriculture and the processes for producing fresh fruits and vegetables and bringing them to market.

A general-assignment reporter from a large, urban-based daily newspaper isn’t likely to know as much about farming, the effects of weather, the weather variations among regions of the state or the different effects weather can have based on different types crops as, say, a reporter working for an industry publication like The Produce News. So we’d plan to take a little extra time making sure the general-assignment reporter’s story wouldn’t contain inaccuracies based on that limited understanding and to temper a more sensational story they may want to fashion.

Knowing all we can about the media that cover us, the farmers who depend upon us and the consumers who depend upon the farmers is crucial to making sure we have the right message that is neither too extreme nor too rosy to reflect reality.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering. Yes, we’ve had some extraordinary weather this year, from heavy rains across whole weeks, to days upon days of high heat. Those weather patterns have affected some areas of the state more than others, and there have been challenges for our farmers based on what crops they are raising. But New Jersey farmers are a resilient, resourceful and innovative lot, and we are working with them to ensure that “Jersey Fresh” produce is available at retailers, community farmers markets and roadside stands. Our farmers will appreciate your support as they emerge from this wild-weather season.

(Douglas H. Fisher is New Jersey’s secretary of agriculture.)