New Jersey is called the Garden State for a reason and the Jersey Fresh advertising and marketing program highlights the fact that the state is a top 10 producer of a slew of crops from apples and eggplant to squash and tomatoes.
The state boasts 9,000 farms that did more than $1 billion in sales in 2015. Fruit and vegetable production is the state’s second-largest agricultural sector behind nurseries and greenhouses, and there are about 720,000 acres of farmland.
About 400 farmers are registered as Jersey Fresh, meaning their products have been certified as Grade 1 or better under US Agriculture Department standards. Qualifying growers pay a small fee to participate, which entitles them to use the Jersey Fresh logo on their products. The logo has had one refresh since the program started in 1985, but the name has stayed the same, unlike programs in some other states that get new names when a new administration comes in.
“It’s the longest-running branded program in the country,” said New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher.
“We grow an amazing variety of crops. When you’re located in between big markets like New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and you have this amazingly productive land with different microclimates, you can do that.”
The state’s farms produce more than 100 crops and hundreds of varieties within those crops, he said, and food companies are also creating and marketing new packaged foods and wines made with Jersey Fresh ingredients.
New Jersey is now home to about 50 wineries and the state’s grape growers are expanding along with demand for new wine grape varieties, Fisher said. Specialty crops are also on the rise as consumers’ interest grows in different ethnic cuisines.
“For millennials and beyond, it’s absolutely all about fusion and new tastes and it’s almost like a way to show off when people know about a particular food that somebody else doesn’t know about,” he said.
Interest in locally grown food has also been a boon to the program.
“Locally grown is very important to people now,” Fisher said. “They want to know where it’s produced, when and how it got to them and is it sustainable. Sustainability is a major thing now.”
The Jersey Fresh seal gives retailers, restaurants and hotels a way to demonstrate that the produce they’re selling is homegrown. For some of the state’s top crops, the seal also carries cachet across the country and even in some international markets.
Atlantic Blueberry Co. grows berries on about 1,000 acres and it’s one of three growers in Hammonton, N.J., that sell their fruit under the Naturipe brand. The berries are shipped around the country and to international markets including Canada and the EU, said co-owner Art Galletta, whose father started the business with his brothers in 1935.
Atlantic Blueberry is part of the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council and has been part of the Jersey Fresh program since it launched in 1984, and the brand is increasingly resonating with consumers far from the Garden State.
Extending the brand
Increasingly, the logo can also be found on foods made with ingredients grown in New Jersey, a trend that extends the season and boosts the bottom line for growers and awareness of the brand, Fisher said.
Cherry Hill-based Avallone Tomatoes was started by Theresa Belfiore, who created a recipe for crushed tomatoes and a label featuring a picture of her mother as a gift for a brother who has everything.
Belfiore’s sibling is the singer Frankie Valli.
“I didn’t plan on this being a business. I just wanted to give him something that nobody else could give him for Christmas and birthdays,” she said.
She discovered that it was less expensive to order a big printing of the labels she had designed. Her son showed a can of the tomatoes to a professor at a local college, the teacher shared it with a buyer from ShopRite and in 2011 a business was born.
Today, Avallone’s crushed tomatoes are stocked in 12 ShopRite stores, several independent markets and select locations of some grocery chains including Wegmans, Acme and Whole Foods Market. Fans can also order via the company’s website.
Belfiore promotes the product through in-store tastings where she stresses the local origins of the product, which is made with a mix of tomato varieties.
“There’s a variety of tomatoes in the can, which makes a sweeter tomato so there’s no need to add sugar,” she said.
“I think a lot of people know how good Jersey tomatoes are,” she said.
The Jersey Fresh brand is also found at farmers markets and on community supported agriculture programs.
“The public embraces Jersey Fresh, as we know from our consumer surveys,” Fisher said. “It’s highly prized and recognized. As a grower, it’s an opportunity to be recognized for quality. It’s highly prized, desirable and an opportunity to sell to more consumers.
“I really find myself loving it all because I visit all these farms across the state. Know the quality and what these farming families put into it and it all tastes good.”
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