The “farm to table” movement embraced by restaurants and cooks nationwide seems ideally suited to the Garden state, relying as it does on freshly picked produce and locally sourced meat and fish that taste better and are easy on the environment, animals, and farmers.
But the dirty little secret is that there’s no national definition of “locally grown,” and since 2010 the state has been trying to develop its own. In authorizing a rule proposal, Department of Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher indicated that his department had received complaints from farmers that products being sold in the state and marketed as “local” originate from sources “that are actually not nearby and are not in New Jersey at all.”
Without national rules, states must develop alternative marketing programs to ensure truly local products. For New Jersey, that means “Jersey Fresh.”
Jersey Fresh history: The Jersey Fresh program began in 1984, when then-Secretary of Agriculture Art Brown was alarmed that the state’s 19,000 farms in 1957 had dwindled to 8,277. Seeking to combat this steep decline, Brown secured $325,000 in state funding for a new program to promote high-quality, New Jersey-grown produce and to spread the word about the benefits of buying local.
Brown, now retired and tending his own farm in South Jersey, says that in the early ‘80s, the word “fresh” wasn’t usually mentioned in connection with food. The Jersey Fresh campaign, he recalls, was innovative and well-received -- starting off as a radio campaign and quickly spreading to TV, billboards, and other print ads.
Today, the program has expanded to social media with the “Jersey Fresh Love” Facebook page. It also sponsors the “Jersey Fresh Farm to School Program,” which works to incorporate Jersey Fresh produce in school lunches statewide. More than 30 other states like Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Grown) and Vermont (Vermont Made) have implemented their own promotional programs following the Jersey Fresh model.
More than 9,000 farms in the Garden State generated $1.14 billion in sales in 2014 according to the USDA. Of these, more than 1,000 use the Jersey Fresh logo on their packaging.
How fresh is fresh? The Jersey Fresh program has two functions: marketing and promotion and a regulatory operation that includes a quality-grading program.
In order for farmers to use the Jersey Fresh logo, they must submit an application listing the commodities they want to register. Since the produce must meet the federal guidelines for U.S. Grade 1 or higher, farmers can only use the logo for items that meet USDA standards. The USDA grading guidelines differ for each type of fruit or vegetable and include specifications for length, color, diameter, and tolerance for defects.
U.S. Grade 1 means the produce is free of all blemishes and is at peak ripeness. Farms can register any of their fruits and vegetables and most grains except for livestock feed, bedding, and hay. According to the fiscal year 2017 state budget plan, there are currently 375 farms that meet Jersey Fresh standards.
To ensure that farms are adhering to USDA standards, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture assigns four inspectors to visit each of the licensed farms at least three times a year to pull records, check produce quality, and make recommendations for any proposed changes to the standards. Christian Kleinguenther, head of Commodity Inspection and Grading for the state, says in his time with the department, he’s only heard of a few instances of logo fraud or consumer complaints. He adds that these folks are quickly ferreted out through receipt audits and quality control inspections.
For products like beer and wine, which use Jersey Fresh ingredients, companies can display the Made with Jersey Fresh logo. They must still undergo the same licensing and inspection process that’s required for the traditional Jersey Fresh logo.
How it’s funded: Farmers like Joe Maugeri of Maugeri Farms in Woolwich Township who have participated in the program since the beginning say it’s a pretty sweet deal. He pays a $30 annual application fee and, if the produce passes inspection, he can use the logo on all of the packaging for that item. Maugeri says it’s a source of pride for him and farmers like him. He notes that the added boost from the Jersey Fresh brand helps him sell his produce to other states as well because “they know Jersey Fresh. They want Jersey Fresh.”
The program as a whole, including inspection and advertising, costs much more than the total $30 fee, but the majority of the cost is offset by a federal grant called the Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG). Because of the prevailing commodity-based pricing structure for specialty crops like tomatoes and blueberries, New Jersey growers are at a disadvantage when it comes to selling their wares. The SCBG allocated $707,065 to the NJDA in 2015; of this, $342,000 went directly to the Jersey Fresh program. At its peak in 1994, NJDA data shows that the Jersey Fresh budget reached $1.3 million. Any other costs are met by the Jersey Fresh Matching Fund which takes donations from nonprofit agricultural organizations that use the Jersey Fresh promotions.
Does it Work? Anecdotal evidence and consumer studies say “yes.” Retailers and restaurateurs swear by the brand. Executive Chef Chris Beall at the farm-to-table restaurant Lambertville Station in Lambertville says he’s more likely to do business with farmers selling Jersey Fresh. He says the flavor is more vivid than anything he’s bought from a store. “You can tell someone cared for it,” Beall explains.
Consumer surveys also show positive perceptions of the Jersey Fresh brand. A 2014 survey by the NJDA found that 67 percent of respondents were more inclined to purchase fruits and vegetables if they were advertised as Jersey Fresh.
“We’ve got a proud bunch of farmers who make a great, quality product,” Jersey Fresh founder Art Brown says. “It’s nice to get it out there and promote it to the citizens. And that’s exactly what we did.”