(Photo: Flickr user Amy Gisienski)
Farmers may do what they do out of love for growing our food, but the business and marketing side of the job hasn’t always come easy, according to Agricultural Marketing Specialist Bill Walker of the New Jersey State Department of Agriculture.
“They’re very good on the operations side, but they’re not always the best ones to write the press release, or have folks out to the farm,” he said. “But local farmers have to compete on marketing with folks who are very good at it year-round. For farmers, they had to grudgingly accept and acknowledge and embrace that you have to market yourself.”
The department’s Jersey Fresh marketing program launched 30 years ago to set standards for food grown in the state and help farmers and small businesses market and advertise local produce. Eateries around the state are increasingly using the program to source local produce from the state’s farmers.
The Garden State blooms from spring through fall, with a diverse mix of crops that shifts with the weeks and supplies about 140 farmer’s markets, and a growing number of restaurants and supermarkets. The state’s 9,071 farms generated $1.14 billion in revenue in 2012, making food-growing and -production the state’s third-largest industry. It’s in the top 10 of produce-growing states, and it ranks third in the nation in production of cranberries, bell peppers and spinach, according to the state Agriculture Department.
Promoting local produce means farms and farmers putting on events, using social media and reaching out to become part of the community in new ways, which is just what Jersey Fresh’s program aims to do.
The program’s push to encourage agritourism has been a big driver in getting farmers to open up to the possibilities, Walker said, from U-pick days to winery tours to pumpkin patch hay rides in October.
And, increasingly, the Jersey Fresh logo and the state’s growers have also been focused on doing well by doing good. The South Jersey Food Bank now works with peach growers to pick out the “seconds” and turn them into Just Peachy Salsa. A number of the state’s farmers’ markets also feed food deserts, where residents don’t have easy access to affordable fresh produce.
“We will always be one of those states that’s got those urban, suburban and rural areas,” Walker said. “We have farmers who are willing to travel, and some of our farmer’s markets are in the toughest areas, where half of their business comes from WIC and other vouchers.”
Additionally, food manufacturers are catching onto the benefits of sourcing locally.
“We have a processing facility in Camden and the guys were getting eggplants from South America,” Walker explains. “We said ‘we’ve got a local guy here who can supply them.’ Now, the Jersey Fresh seal is on breaded eggplant rounds, zucchini fries and all different kinds of value-added products.”
It’s been an average growing season so far, which means most crops including blueberries, tomatoes and corn have come in a couple weeks later than in the past couple years, when unseasonably warm winters and springs spurred early harvests.
“The season has been remarkably average, cooler with a bit of warmth at times, a good amount of rainfall and soil moisture content, and it hasn’t been overly hot or wet,” said Walker. “Farmers love average. They can plan on average.”
In the past three decades, the program’s red, white and green logo has gone from eye-catching to iconic, and residents now know that the sign means they’re buying or dining local.
“We have a logo, it’s a brand and we have $26 million invested in that brand … sometimes people want to use it in some other non-food ways, for art festivals and things like that — it’s great to be thought of as a cultural icon,” Walker said.
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