DeFoor says row covers can help in the fields, “but you can’t stop the rain to prevent loss.” But despite the wacky weather, the season mostly remained on schedule—thanks to a colder March that brought back some normalcy after an unusually warm February (which fueled initial predictions of an early start).
“Last year,” DeFoor recalls, “the start of the season was delayed by at least 10 days due to a late freeze that affected the asparagus crop.”
Food safety continues to have a major impact on everyone along the Jersey supply chain.
“Once we think we got it licked, there are new things,” laments Sheppard. “There always seems to be another level and more auditors.” Though regulations are nothing new to the supplier, the process is complicated and continues to be a challenge.
Molinelli agrees: “Food safety is making it difficult and bringing extra expense; all the regulations make it a little tougher to keep up as a grower.”
The controversy of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) also continues to concern Jersey suppliers. “We get a lot of questions about GMOs, which is perplexing to me,” reveals Sheppard. “Not many scientists have found problems with them; it’s just a small percentage with concerns. We’ve had less problems with them and use less chemicals—there are many attractive reasons to grow GMO [crops]—but customers don’t want them, and the customer is always right.”
Lulls in labor
“Labor is without equal the biggest cost-driver for fruit and vegetable producers throughout New Jersey,” declares Beaver. “Uncertainty about labor availability and wage pressures are always at the forefront of growers’ minds.”
D’Ottavio has managed to reduce the stress with growing operations in both New Jersey and Florida. “Working year-round has proven a big plus for maintaining a committed and a very good group of farm labor.”
In addition to the dearth of workers, skill is a top issue. “We try to find help to harvest and work on the farm, but all the better [laborers] are going into other venues,” says Molinelli. “Labor is just not what it used to be.”
The lack of skilled workers is particularly difficult with labor-intensive crops like blueberries. With the “pool shrinking all the time, every year it’s a struggle,” admits Wetherbee.