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Spinelli touts new marketing campaign for Monmouth Co.

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

HOLMDEL (Aug. 1, 2016) — Consultant Ben Spinelli of Chester, spoke at length to a group of small farmers and open space advocates here on June 20 about the launching of a new marketing campaign to support Monmouth County’s vegetable and fruit growers, “Grown in Monmouth.”
Funded by a grant from the USDA to promote agriculture as a business in the county and still in the research and planning stages, the “Grown in Monmouth” campaign will seek to spread awareness in Monmouth and surrounding counties among consumers that they can rest assured their produce is grow locally.
Spinelli, a partner in Spinelli and Pinto Consulting, was hired by the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders to direct the research and marketing campaign.
“Farming is a business. There is a land use component to it because it is dedicated land use,” he said. “Promoting agriculture means making it a viable business. It’s a use of land that’s not residential or industrial and understanding that it’s productive land use is very important.”
From a taxation standpoint, he said the average home may use one dollar or $1.50 in services for every dollar collected, whereas a farm uses only about 30 cents in services for every tax dollar collected.
Preserving farms is part of having a stable tax rate and a stable land use mix “so you have to ensure that farming is a profitable activity,” he said.
“We happen to live in an area where it’s difficult from a practical standpoint, because of conflicts between suburbs and agriculture and at the same time, it’s an area where there are opportunities like no place else in the world,” he said, noting the Garden State is nestled between New York City, with 8 million consumers and Philadelphia, with 4 million potential consumers, noting New Jersey itself has about 8 million potential consumers as well.
“You can have the most wonderful agricultural land in the world in Nebraska, and not that there’s anything wrong with Nebraska, but you’re a long way from anywhere else,” he said. “New Jersey has some of the best agricultural soil in the world and we’re an hour’s drive from New York and a hour’s drive from Philadelphia. Where else in the world can you have productive agricultural land in that close a proximity to these big populations, with a sophisticated public that cares about where their food comes from?”
One of the goals of the newly launched “Grown in Monmouth” campaign will be to identify the opportunities there are to promote agriculture in the county to make sure it remains a stable and viable part of the economy, he said.
“Agriculture often doesn’t get thought of as vital part of the economy in this part of the country, but I believe it’s going to become an even bigger part of the economy in New Jersey for a number of reasons,” he said, noting nearly everyone cares about where their food is grown and how it tastes.
Super market tomatoes flown 3,000 miles from northern California in early spring simply do not taste as good as locally grown tomatoes do at the height of the season in late July and August, he pointed out, and most New Jerseyans are savvy enough to know the difference, he said.
“It comes down to the fact that being able to produce food profitably in New Jersey is a remarkable thing. What do you think $4 or $5 a gallon for gas would do to food prices?” he said.
“We’re in the information gathering stage,” Spinelli said, promising his representatives will be out at the Monmouth County Fair in Freehold in late July, “and we have a survey that we’re circulating around Monmouth County.
“We want responses from farmers, average citizens, people who purchase agricultural products, restaurant owners, chefs, the whole range of the population.”
“We’re identifying where are the people who buy the products and where are the restaurants who consume the products,” he said, “being able to make the connections so that the farmers have a closer connection between what they produce and the people who going to buy the produce cuts out a lot of middleman costs, is all part of what we’re looking at in this study.
“We’re also talking to larger consumers of produce like Shop-Rite, Whole Foods, Wegman’s,” he said. “You have to have the quality, the reliability, the transport, the price has to be right, there are so many things that go into whether those large retailers can access the local produce that’s grown right in their backyard.
“We’re trying to identify what the challenges are to the industry. The people that are still farming today are tough people, they’ve made it through the expenses, state regulations, this is a tough place to farm, and farmers that are still in business today are tough people. They’ve made it through conflicts with their neighbors and put up with all kinds of regulations and no matter who you are or what you do, New Jersey is an expensive place to live,” he said.
“If you’re farming in New Jersey now, in 2016, you’re a tough guy. It means you’re a good farmer, you’re a good businessman and you’re tough.”
The results of the Grown In Monmouth study will be released in October and an event will be held at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft [the county college of Monmouth] that month as well to promote the “Grown in Monmouth” brand.
“Above all else, this has to be seen as an economic development effort. Fifty years from now, we’ll say this was the start of the golden age of agriculture in New Jersey.”
Spinelli has a background that includes time as Mayor of Chester Township and time orchestrating farmland preservation efforts in Morris County, when funds were readily available for that program.
He also mentioned that in his time in the Garden State as a lawyer, mayor and farmland preservation advocate, he has had the privilege of visiting all 567 municipalities.
Farmers, backyard gardeners, restaurant owners and just plain fans of Jersey Fresh produce — Spinelli cautioned Grown In Monmouth is not meant to replace the Jersey Fresh campaign efforts — may take the online survey about their produce buying and eating habits at www.growninmonmouth.com.