Through three administrations, what keeps the Agriculture secretary going?

On Sept. 19, NJTV will be “In Your Neighborhood” for a special on agriculture in Vineland. None may be as important to the farming community as Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron sat down with Fisher to talk about his role throughout three gubernatorial administrations.

Aron: Secretary Doug Fisher, you were appointed by [Gov. Jon] Corzine in the last year of his administration.

Fisher: Right.

Aron: Chris Christie decided to keep you on, and now Phil Murphy decided to keep you on. Is that unusual, or does that come with this particular job?

Fisher: No, it doesn’t come with it. Although, there are secretaries that have served for 20 years.

Aron: Art Brown, Phil Alampi.

Fisher: Yes, so they were two of the longest runners.

Aron: To what do you chalk up your survival?

Fisher: Well, it wasn’t quite as easy as how you’re describing. It doesn’t just flow like that.

Aron: Well how was it? Tell me.

Fisher: Well, what I’m saying is, originally Gov. Christie wasn’t going to keep me, actually. Some folks spoke up for me, particularly the [agriculture] community, Sen. Sweeney spoke up for me. Because of the strong support I had from that, from agricultural farmers, I was able to stay. And then, of course, I was happy to stay with Gov. Christie, and we had a good relationship.

Aron: You were a Democrat — before you were a secretary, you were a Democratic assemblyman.

Fisher: That’s correct. In the 3rd District.

Aron: In the 3rd District. Sweeney’s district.

Fisher: Sweeney and Burzichelli and myself. We started out together in the Legislature.

Aron: There’s a State Board of Agriculture. Technically, the state board tells the governor who should be the secretary, is that right?

Fisher: Well, it doesn’t tell him. It offers him the name up, and then the governor decides if he wants to accept or reject that nomination.

Aron: But it’s really up to the governor.

Fisher: Well, it’s up to the state board and the governor.

Aron: And the governor — together.

Fisher: Yes.

Aron: And who sits on the state board?

Fisher: They serve for four-year terms. There’s eight commissioners representing the major commodity crops in the state. They serve for, as I said, for four years. They ascend through the chairs, so each year there’s a different president.

Aron: What are the major commodity crops in the state?

Fisher: Well, it changes a bit. Vegetable crops, nursery crops, fruits — you know, it’s changed a bit. It was dairy at one time. Of course now it’s not dairy, they’re struggling, but they’re still an important force of the state. It’s just not the top-ranking commodity.

Aron: I read in a bio that you’re from Bridgeton, but you were telling me earlier that you’re in Gloucester County. I thought Bridgeton was Cumberland County.

Fisher: Bridgeton is Cumberland County. I moved about three years ago, so I spent my entire life in Cumberland County. I was in the supermarket business. I was there for 30 years with an independent supermarket. My family was in the meat business for 100 years, my grandfather was a cattle dealer.

Aron: Your grandfather was a cattle dealer?

Fisher: Yeah.

Aron: In South Jersey?

Fisher: Yeah. In fact, he used to walk his calves from Salem to Cumberland County to, you know, for process.

Aron: He used to walk his calves?

Fisher: He didn’t have a truck.

Aron: Wow.

Fisher: Yeah.

Aron: Are there meat farmers down there still?

Fisher: Yes, sure. There’s packers and slaughterers. Goats and sheep are a growing commodity. We have big meat operations. We have egg and poultry still. We have one house in New Jersey, in the northern part of the state, has 1 million laying hens.

Aron: Where did you grow up?

Fisher: I grew up in Bridgeton.

Aron: When I go to Bridgeton, I feel like I’m in another world.

Fisher: Well, you are. When I bring people from Sussex County down to Cumberland County, they want to know where the rocks are. When I take people from Cumberland County up to Warren and Sussex, they just can’t believe it’s the same state, and that’s always been that way. The western parts of the state — both ends — don’t travel nearly as much as you would think — that way.

Aron: Have you been a farmer?

Fisher: No, I was never a farmer, but I always worked with local farmers. I was chairman of the Ag committee in the Legislature. Working with local farmers meant that I was bringing in product into my store in those years.

Aron: You had one supermarket?

Fisher: Yeah.

Aron: In Bridgeton?

Fisher: Yes. In Hopewell Township, actually.

Aron: Hopewell Township, Cumberland County.

Fisher: Cumberland County.

Aron: Not the one in here in Mercer.

Fisher: Right. There’s three Hopewell’s, I think.

Aron: How much longer are you going to do this job?

Fisher: I love what I do. I work with farmers every day. I work with FFA, 4-H, schoolchildren. I know all the people in the industry, in the distribution. It’s just an extension of what I feel I’ve always done and love doing.

Aron: Do you still own the supermarket?

Fisher: No, I sold it.

Aron: You sold it. How’d you get into politics?

Fisher: My father was in politics when he passed away. They asked me to take his position on the freeholder board. I didn’t take it, I didn’t think it was right. And then a year later, I was asked again — would I consider it? And I said I would. So I ran for freeholder and I was a freeholder for 10 years. Then I was asked by members of the Legislature, well I was asked by party people, would I be interested in the Assembly. And I was sort of coaxed — glad I was — and I ended up in the Assembly. And then this position became available because they were trying to get rid of the Department of Agriculture at that time. Gov. Corzine finally said to me, “Would you take it?” And I said I would, and then, of course, the state board had to come up — they wanted me to serve as well.

Aron: And are you happy you saved it?

Fisher: I didn’t save it, but it was saved. I was just part of that scene.