Tomatoes are New Jersey’s most valuable vegetable, but Bob and Leda Muth might cut production of the crop this year. With restaurants and other foodservice businesses still largely closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s just too hard to know what the wholesale market will be this summer.
From Mullica Hill to Egg Harbor City, growers in South Jersey’s $300 million produce industry are taking health precautions and adapting their sales strategies in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The problems were greatest at the beginning of the outbreak. School and restaurant closures caused major market disruptions for South Jersey farmers, who had already planted their early spring crops.
Rerouting perishable and valuable produce was a problem for growers and brokers across the country.
But in New Jersey at least, produce markets had returned to fairly normal volumes by the time growers started harvesting large volumes of lettuce and greens earlier this month, said Rick VanVranken, the head of Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Atlantic County.
VanVranken expects the Muths won’t be the only local growers who adjust their cropping plans this summer because of market uncertainty. “But they are also hedging their bets that an overall tight supply might lead to higher prices, so they don’t want to cut back too much,” he said.
With institutional markets mostly knocked out, some New Jersey produce has shifted to grocery stores, or to home delivery and meal kit vendors.
Growers have seen a small increase in direct-to-consumer sales, but the Jersey Fresh promotion program was already a potent force driving both retail and wholesale markets, VanVranken said.
In response to the pandemic, a group of South Jersey state lawmakers has also proposed spending $1 million to purchase crops from the region’s farmers for donation to free- or reduced-meal programs.
As explained on lancasterfarming.com, south Jersey produces 84% of the state’s fruits and vegetables and is particularly known for blueberries, tomatoes and bell peppers.