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Locating the local: A Q-and-A with Jersey Fresh’s Al Murray

Finding ways to put more local items on the menu often requires a concerted effort, and — at least at first — may prove time-consuming and expensive for eateries, depending on their locations and seasons of the year.

One state has been ahead of the curve, living up to its Garden State nickname with a marketing effort that’s proven a model for other states looking to connect farmers and growers with local restaurants. New Jersey’s Department of Agriculture launched Jersey Fresh in 1984, decades before anyone uttered the word “locavore.”

We spoke last week with Al Murray, New Jersey’s assistant secretary of agriculture, who oversees the program, which began with a focus on increasing local consumption and today has a growing role as matchmaker between producers and restaurants. Murray’s office tracks the availability of each type of homegrown produce and seafood and shares that information with interested consumers and chefs via a weekly e-mailed newsletter.

On how the program has changed

The fact that we’ve been doing this for 26 years shows that, when the locally grown trend really exploded, we had all those years of Jersey Fresh behind us. It positioned us to take full advantage of this trend. Before, it was us out in the field trying to promote local foods. Now, it’s people coming to us. Our job has become easy; we’re trying to facilitate new relationships between growers and restaurants.

A lot of it depends on geographical location. One, a restaurant generally has its own produce supplier, and the owner can put the onus on them and say, “Hey, we want Jersey Fresh product, get it for us.” Or, if they see something new or want to support a local farmer, we might get involved. If they’re in a certain part of the state and we know a farmer there, we can introduce the buyers and the sellers.

On the growth of the “eat local” trend

There’s huge demand. Consumers really want locally grown. They want to support the farmers, and they believe the products are better because they’re grown closer and picked at a riper stage. I also think in a food-security sense, people feel more secure because they see the farmer who grew their food.

In (the South Jersey town of) Collingswood, there’s been a renaissance on Main Street with new restaurants, and farmers have now made that connection. When they come to the farmers market there, they now bring two trucks, and you might see the owner of Tortilla Press (a restaurant) come by with a hand truck and a list.

On seasonality

We have the potential to have produce in the restaurants all year long. Root vegetables, turnips, leeks, potatoes and apples are available year-round, and once the first frost is over – generally in March – there are the first greens, including dandelion greens and spinach. Those give way to tomatoes and blueberries, then corn right after the Fourth of July. We grow over 100 different kinds of fruits and vegetables here, and we have a vibrant seafood industry off our coast, as well. We’re No. 1 on the East Coast in scallops, we harvest a lot of lobster, and there’s a revitalized shellfish industry in the state.

On counting the costs

I don’t think it’s more expensive to buy local because they’re not paying to truck the stuff across the country, but they might (pay more) sometimes because the quality is better. If a restaurant is dealing with its own supplier, they can work out the pricing. If they work directly with the farmer, they can say, “I generally use X number of boxes of peaches. Give me a price.”  One other thing restaurants have to realize is that it’s what the consumer is demanding. People really want ingredients they might not find in the national market, and it’s exciting to see people really interested in food.

Are you introducing more local food to your menu? Tell us how it’s going.

Image via Marlee90 on iStockphoto

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