Fisher encourages NJFB members to be flexible

AFP Correspondent

PRINCETON (Dec. 1, 2016) — New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher urged a crowd of farmers to be flexible and mindful of changes in the food and ag industries in finding new markets for their produce at the 98th annual meeting of the New Jersey Farm Bureau at the Westin Hotel.
“I usually give a bit of a policy speech that looks at issues on the horizon,” Fisher said. “But this year I’m going to take a slightly different tack and talk about some of the things we’ve been doing as a department to foster more opportunities for you and looking forward to other opportunities on the horizon.”
Fisher said he, Farm Bureau President Ryck Suydam and others attended a conference on New Jersey’s food industry recently organized by NJ Biz, a Somerset-based business magazine.  Fisher recalled his time at the NJ FoodBiz conference, which he described as an assemblage of food processors, folks from the terminal markets like Hunts Point, wholesalers, retailers, food enthusiasts and non-profit food banks, “a real cross-section of food and agriculture in the state.”
The estimated $105 billion in revenues from farms and food related businesses places farming and food behind the tourism and pharmaceutical industries, Fisher said.
“In preparing for that FoodBiz presentation, I stepped back and looked at the larger picture of food and agriculture and the connections we can help foster.
“As we went through that process, one thing jumped out: How agriculture’s relation to the food business has changed over the years; new formats and new food attitudes, all of these things have affected farmers.
“But the market changes. Those changes are creating more and more avenues that farmers need to pursue. I liken what’s happening in agriculture to two-lane highways,” he said.
“If one thing is not working for your farm’s viability, you need to look at other routes to explore,” Fisher said, adding the Department of Agriculture has looked to expand these opportunities for farmers over the years.
“Not only community farmers’ markets, but we make connections between farmers and aggregators wherever we can.
“We want to have farmers’ markets where they make sense and where they can work for our farmers,” he said. “It has to work for the farmers involved.”
Fisher cited the Jersey Fresh produce marketing campaign and loosening of rules on interstate shipments of wine as ways new outlets have opened up for farmers and winery operators, but he also cited the school lunch programs around the state.
“We’ve tried to expand our school feeding programs with the ability to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables from New Jersey farmers,” he said “There are opportunities with farmers selling to the schools and there are almost 700,000 students a day having school lunch in New Jersey.”
Fisher urged the state’s farmers not to underestimate the intelligence of patrons at their farm stands or at farmers’ markets, where everyone is carrying a smart phone and using online outlets like Yelp! to learn about  the quality of goods and services offered by various businesses.
“Information and authenticity are important, and it’s important to remember that people have libraries of information now in the palms of their hands when they take out their phones,” he said, adding, “having been a former retailer, it’s now harder to sell and easier to inform. Consumers today turn to things like Yelp! because they want to know what other people are saying about your place, your food, your operation.”
In closing, he reminded the audience of the next big agricultural gathering in the state, Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 in Atlantic City.
“I encourage you to bring your ideas and support to the 102nd Agriculture Convention in Atlantic City,” he said. It’s a great opportunity to sort of broadcast and coalesce around the work you’re doing here, to make that voice of agriculture be a strong voice in so many communities across this state in so many different endeavors. I think it’s really important that we support ourselves in all of these avenues and I think we’re going to have some great successes this year.”