Farmers in New Jersey produce more than 100 different kinds of fruits and vegetables that are marketed both here and in countries all over the world. Nationally, New Jersey is in the top 10 producers for fruits and vegetable from A to Z (apples to zucchini) grown on 9,071 farms covering 715,057 acres of productive farmland. The big money grows in nurseries, greenhouses and sod. Followed by fruits and vegetables, field crops, poultry and eggs and dairy. All certified Jersey Fresh. And the person overseeing it all is New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher. He sat down with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron
Aron: Mr. Secretary, thanks for being with us. How healthy is the agricultural sector in New Jersey these days?
Fisher: First of all, it’s nice to be with you, Michael. I’ve known you for a long, long time. Agriculture is healthy and doing just fine in our state. It’s always changing; we’re always growing different commodities — and some the same. What I’m getting at is that in certain areas, we are the top 10 production in the entire country.
Aron: What are we big in?
Fisher: So we’re big in blueberries, one of the top 10 producers in the country. Last year we were number two in peaches for the entire country. People think it’s Georgia; it was actually New Jersey. We are growing major crops in horticulture in New Jersey. We grow sod, is a big production area. I mean, there’s — it’s endless, in terms of the varieties of crops we grow in the state. About 100 varieties of crops.
Aron: Are we still the Garden State?
Fisher: We’re absolutely the Garden State. Sometimes, as I said, it changes. We have 700,000 acres of farmland in the state; some of the most productive in the country. There’s sectors that are growing and there are sectors that are struggling, and it’s always going to be that way because of the nature of agriculture.
Aron: How many of our 21 counties have farming?
Fisher: About 18 have really serious farming operations. You know, we have a big dairy operation, let’s say in Salem County; grain operation, also in the north. But then there’s other areas, like Atlantic County, where they’re big in blueberries. Burlington County, where they’re big in so many crops. So, each county has its own particular area that it grows a large amount of crop.
Aron: New Jerseyans love their farmland, I think. Don’t you?
Fisher: They absolutely do. An interesting fact is that New Jersey so appreciates its farmland that we’ve spent almost $1.7 billion to preserve farmland, which happens to be the most in dollars in the entire country.
Aron: I remember back in the 80s there was a building boom where we were tearing up farmland. They used to say we would lose 1,000 acres of farmland a day. I don’t know. That seemed wildly excessive to me at the time. But, there’s no urgency today like there was back then about saving farmland, is there?
Fisher: Yes there is. We have about 230,000 acres or so preserved now. We’d like to preserve about 500,000 acres to make sure we have that agricultural base in the state.
Aron: But you don’t hear the state plan advocates crying out for, “Save our cornfields!” Or do you?
Fisher: Well, we have a robust program and everybody knows it. So each county, it participates — for instance, the county I live in, Gloucester County, they’re under great pressure of losing farmland. They are on the fast track to preserve as much as they can.
Aron: We’re sitting in front of your desk in your office in Trenton. What issues come to your desk? What do you do here?
Fisher: Ah. So we have several divisions; one of them is food and nutrition, where we’re responsible for all the school feeding in the state. So that’s about 500,000 to 600,000 kids a day that we administer those programs. So that’s one division. We’re trying to do farm-to-school; we’re working on school gardens. We have a whole concentration of things that we’re doing within the schools and we monitor all that. So, you know, we have four other divisions. One of them is plant, where we’re looking for disease pressures from insects. So right now it’s the spotted lantern fly, it’s on our borders and we’re trying to make sure that we keep it out. Animal health is another part, where we’re doing testing to make sure that our livestock in the state and do testing for any other areas besides livestock.
Aron: How many people work in the Department of Agriculture?
Fisher: In the department there’s about 225.
Aron: What’s the biggest challenge facing farmers today?
Fisher: Well, labor is the top of the list. They’re always — the pressure is trying to find labor, to make sure they are there to do the work that they need to do on the farm. That’s one. That’s an ever-growing pressure, pretty much not just New Jersey but across the country; where fields just go plowed-under because they can’t find anyone because of the current system, you know, that’s so messed up. Another is animals — pressures from deer. Deer are just chewing up the landscape.
Aron: They chew up my flowers. I didn’t realize they menace the farmers.
Fisher: So just imagine if you were a farmer and you see a stand of deer just walking in, having lunch. It’s a really ever-present problem across the state.
Aron: We used to have migrant farm workers in South Jersey. Do we still?
Fisher: There are migratory workers for sure, yes. They come through — they’ll pick a particular crop and then they’ll move through to another state for another opportunity, for another crop. Or the same crop, as they come to maturity and move north.
Aron: Do we have an issue around illegal immigrants — undocumented immigrants working the farms?
Fisher: Well, the whole country has that. Whatever is happening in New Jersey is happening across the country.
Aron: What are you most excited about now?
Fisher: So, what I’m most excited about is we have many opportunities in the state, and we’re, you know, making those connections and developing that. There’s agritourism, is a big and growing factor in our state, where people come on farms and enjoy their experience there. They might go apple picking or on a hayride. They’re coming from the cities; they’re coming in many different ways. Wineries are an expanding opportunity in the state. We have 50 right now, and it continues to grow. Value-added crops. New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country, and so we’re growing a lot of those diverse crops that —
Aron: What’s a value-added crop?
Fisher: So a value-added crop is when you are taking, perhaps making a sauce or something, out of tomatoes. Making a salsa. We have somebody making peach cider. You know, you just take that crop, and you add the value, and it becomes a processed product.
Aron: I passed a great farm stand in Colts Neck the other night. You’re making me want to go back there. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for being with us.
Fisher: Thank you.