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South Jersey Rain or Shine

Profiling the Garden State’s resilient fruit and vegetable trade
South Jersey Rain or Shine

Food safety rides in the front seat of the industry’s priorities and is escalating in cost. Robert Von Rohr, director of marketing for Glassboro-based Sunny Valley International, an importer and exporter of primarily fruit, says, “Food safety is a big expense. Third-party audits, required booklets and documentation, administration—it’s all very expensive.” He explains how inspections begin with packing facilities and go right through to the hygiene of the harvesting crew. “Some places even require a social responsibility audit which assesses how you’re treating workers,” he says.

Speaking of workers, there is resounding concern over the future supply and cost. Thomas Sheppard, president of vegetable receiver and shipper Eastern Fresh Growers, Inc. in Cedarville, names immigration laws and ObamaCare as the two issues having the most costly, imminent effects on his business.  Sheppard is confident that without H-2A (guest workers), crops will go unpicked.

What immigration laws are to labor availability, ObamaCare is to labor cost. Sheppard explained for operations with 50 or more full-timers, employers must provide healthcare insurance. “The problem is the government defines a full-time employee as someone who works 30 or more hours per week for 120 days.”

Under this definition, Sheppard’s seasonal crews are deemed full-time. Paying the penalty of $2000 per uncovered employee will cost $500,000 starting January 2014. Ironically, the hefty penalty may actually look attractive when juxtaposed with the cost of providing coverage.

The toughest challenge for Kline is the “lack of support for production agriculture from the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES).” Kline cites the state’s major position in vegetables, and is confounded by the vacancies for horticulture, agronomy, and entomology specialists at the NJAES. She states, “At a minimum, across all commodities, a soil fertility expert is needed in the field.”

Concluding Thoughts
Consumer demand is healthy for South Jersey’s freshest fruits and vegetables. Considering the whole picture, Axelrod is enthused. “There is a huge focus on produce right now, especially for kids and in schools,” she says.  Although the government sparked the idea of prioritizing locally grown, it is now the consumers who are the main proponents of New Jersey’s gleaming produce.  Flaim’s optimism shows as well: “We are fortunate and surviving through this economy because of the loyal chain stores that support us.”

After weighing the abundance of advantages and issues playing a role in this vital produce industry, one conclusion is clear: South Jersey stands ready to weather the storms ahead.


Patti Orton Kuna grew up on a grape farm in Ripley, NY. Now residing in northwestern Pennsylvania, she writes mainly about specialty crops and value-added agriculture