Tomato Sauce Time


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.

One Florida grower told the Miami Herald he expected 10 million pounds of his tomatoes to simply go unpicked this year because of fallen demand.

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 Republican state lawmakers from South Jersey has also proposed spending $1 million to purchase crops from the region’s farmers for donation to free- or reduced-meal programs.

South Jersey produces 84% of the state’s fruits and vegetables and is particularly known for blueberries, tomatoes and bell peppers.

No matter how sales trend, the retail experience is different this year because of state mandates regarding hygiene and social distancing.

The Muths have started using a double-table setup at their Williamstown farm stand.

Produce is kept on one table, and a masked worker places the customer’s order on another table for pickup.

The Muths have extended the hours and days the stand is open to reduce the number of customers who are in the retail space at one time.

The full effect of those longer hours hasn’t set in yet because only a handful of crops are in season.

“Right now we’re just open as long as we have the strawberries,” said Leda Muth, who was also planning to sell spinach, lettuce and bok choy this week.

Early on, the pandemic threatened to disrupt the flow of foreign workers to New Jersey farms.

Processing of H-2A farmworker visas was briefly disrupted, but the State Department streamlined the process by announcing that most workers would be able to come this year without an in-person interview.

Farms were able to bring in the workers they needed, and the emphasis has shifted to keeping crews healthy while they’re working in the fields and packinghouses, VanVranken said.

A state Ag Department spokesman said finishing health guidance for farm labor camps is an “urgent priority.”

The Muths’ workers arrived about a month late, but Leda Muth gathers that the cause was a paperwork flub at a federal agency and was not related to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has been an inescapable challenge this spring — the disease has killed more than 10,000 people in New Jersey, the highest toll after New York — but it hasn’t been the only factor affecting growers.

The weather has offered its usual mix of the favorable and the unfavorable.

Mild conditions allowed farmers to get some leafy greens planted in late winter. April’s cold, wet conditions helped the early crops grow but complicated planting, VanVranken said.

New Jersey also got a cold snap in the second week of May. The state allowed farmers to use open burning and smudge pots from May 12 to 15 to protect crops that were around bloom stage.

The Muths will have to replant some small squash and zucchini plants that were killed by the low temperatures.

And a lot of their strawberry flowers froze, even under the row covers.

As a result, Leda Muth said, “we have less berries on the plants, but the berries that were there are bigger.”

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