N.J. farmers cut acreage devoted to tomatoes

Growers in South and California flood state with their crops

August 21, 2002|By George James | George James,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HAMMONTON, N.J. - Ed Wuillermin, a third-generation farmer here, says this has been a good season for the Jersey tomato. Tom Sheppard, a farmer in Cedarville, on the other hand, gave up growing them this year.

"This year has been both a good production year and a good market year," said Wuillermin, who with his brother August, operates Ed Wuillermin & Sons.

But Sheppard, vice president of Sheppard Farms, chose to grow bell peppers this year instead of tomatoes because of depressed prices in recent years.

`Not a money maker'

"We started with 45 acres and did that for three or five years," he said. "Last year we cut back to 20 acres. It's just not a money maker for us, and we decided to do other things for that acreage."

In fact, the amount of acreage in the state dedicated to growing tomatoes has sharply decreased over the past decade - from 4,800 acres in 1991 to 3,600 last year, according the state Agriculture Department.

Then there are the larger growers from the South and California flooding the area with tomatoes, trying to knock off the local favorite.

Some aficionados contend that the Jersey tomato doesn't taste as good as it did years ago. Yet for all of that, the Jersey tomato - a symbol of the state like the turnpike, only more appetizing - hangs in there.

In 2000, according to the Agriculture Department, the Jersey tomato ranked No. 1 among crops by production value at $30 million. Bell peppers came in a close second at $29.2 million and sweet corn was third with $17.9 million.

Still, the New Jersey Tomato Council, a cooperative formed eight years ago to cut costs and market the product more efficiently, has been losing members like Tom Sheppard, who dropped out this year.

Wuillermin, a council member, stays optimistic. "I think the Jersey tomato market is healthy and can remain so," he said. "But it's important that growers understand we have a certain niche market."

That niche, he said, is producing quality tomatoes for the region that are fresher, riper and tastier than the imports because they have less distance to travel to market.

What makes the Jersey tomato so special? The secret, say the experts, starts with the soil and includes hot, dry weather.

"We have in New Jersey a very sandy, acidic soil, and that's added a certain flavor to our tomatoes," said Wuillermin.

Michelle Infante-Casella, agricultural agent with the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Service in Gloucester County, says growing techniques add to their succulence.

`A vine-ripened product'

"The reason we're so hip on the Jersey tomato is because it's always been a vine-ripened product, as opposed to those in other states," said Infante-Casella.

The others, she added, "pick mature green fruit and then they unnaturally ripen it using ethylene gas so they kind of stay a pinkish color."

The growers in the New Jersey Tomato Council, who are concentrated in Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, carefully schedule their plantings and grow their tomatoes on stakes - out of the dirt - to prevent rot, using drip irrigation and plastic mulch to nurture them, all of which is costly.

Once they pick the tomatoes, they ship them to the council's packing house in Cedarville, in Cumberland County, where they are sorted by size and color in a $750,000 grading machine.

"The machinery that's required to pack round tomatoes is expensive and more than a grower of our size can afford," said August Wuillermin.

How the legend of the Jersey tomato began is hard to say. Some say it began on a day in 1820 when Robert Gibbon Johnson gathered a crowd as he ate a tomato on the steps of the Salem County Courthouse to prove it wasn't poisonous.

A 1999 catalog called Heirlooms, published by Burpee's, said the so-called Rutgers tomato that was developed in 1934 for use by the Campbell's Soup Co. was the original Jersey tomato.

Whichever, farmers and researchers have experimented over the years until today they can grow tomatoes with a longer shelf life that can travel better but still taste good.

But to get something, you have to give up something, and connoisseurs say the taste isn't what it was when the tomatoes were softer and sometimes not as nice-looking as the newer ones.

"One of the detriments of being market-driven is we've had to pick a firmer variety because they have a longer shelf life," Infante-Casella said. "However, what we've gained in shelf life, we've given up a little in flavor."

Nonetheless, during the growing season, July through October, the Jersey tomato will still be fresher than the imports.

"Our advantage is we can pick them while they're ripening, put them in a box and have them in stores that afternoon or the next morning," said Al Murray, director of markets for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

At the peak year of 1937, 13,000 acres were devoted to tomato growing in the state. Murray said the acreage has fallen in part because farms and canneries have gone out of business over the years.

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