Members of the Flaim family have been growing eggplants in the sandy Cumberland County soil of their Vineland farm for 76 years, nurturing tiny seedlings into five-foot-tall plants that bear more than 20 fruits each.
Most will be sold as usual to wholesale buyers or at farmers' markets. This year, 15 percent will find their way into freezer cases in specialty stores and cafeterias throughout the region.
For the last two seasons, the Flaims have been processing the eggplant as breaded cutlets in boxes with the state's Jersey Fresh label, which tells customers they are eating local and is generally reserved for fresh produce.
The cutlets are among a handful of processed foods - including peach cider, blueberry iced tea, tomato paste, and sauces - that have secured the label. A bill in the Legislature would expand the program beyond those pilot projects, creating a "made with Jersey Fresh" category for prepared foods and baked goods.
The change would cater to customers looking for more ways to buy local, said Al Murray, assistant secretary of the state Department of Agriculture. It also would provide some stability to New Jersey farmers finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the global market as cheap vegetables are shipped in from Chile, China, and California.
"You're at the mercy of the market forces," Murray said. "If California has a bumper crop of spinach, that means the spinach price is going to be down everywhere. . . . It's pretty tough to try to eke out a living with that."
Farmers must consider diverting some produce to a "value-added" product in order to be successful, said Louis Cooperhouse, director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, Cumberland County.
His center provides test kitchens and training in marketing and product development.
Products vary, but a processed food can bring in "multiples of profits" compared with commodity sales, Cooperhouse said.
For brothers Kevin and Bob Flaim, the cutlets, which stores sell for $4.90 to $5.35 for a one-pound box, bring in about double what a comparable amount of raw product would.
That's critical for a family that has been farming since 1934. "Our expenses are going up, and we're getting prices we were getting 25 years ago," said Kevin Flaim, 48.
The Flaims started selling zucchini sticks, like french fries, to schools last year and hope to expand their retail products to include zucchini rounds and eggplant sticks this year.
The family pays Comarco Products in Camden to process the produce just after picking to lock in vitamins. Then they distribute the products themselves to Bagliani's Food Market in Hammonton, Atlantic County; Springdale Farm Market in Cherry Hill; Common Market distributors in Philadelphia; and the Collingswood farmers' market.
Kevin Flaim said the Jersey Fresh label helped.
"We want people to know it's local produce," he said. "They've got to stop buying from outside the country."
Other farms in pilot programs are working with processors.
Violet Packing in Williamstown produces Fattoria Fresca canned tomatoes under the Jersey Fresh label with local growers.
The company handles all marketing and distribution and the farmers share the profit - 50 cents per case of retail cans and $1.50 per case of gallon cans, president Rob Ragusa said.
"To me there's no better quality tomato" than the Jersey fruit, and chefs and other food processors look for it, he said.
The bill is sponsored on the Senate side by Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who said he had been approached by owners of the Sweet Life Bakery in Vineland, who wanted a way to highlight their use of local produce. The bill is in the Senate Economic Growth Committee and waiting for a floor vote in the Assembly.
About 300 farmers sell produce under the 26-year-old Jersey Fresh logo, and supermarkets throughout the state use it.
Murray said it was the oldest state agricultural marketing program in the country. As of the end of the week, the program had been spared the department's 24 percent budget cut under Gov. Christie's proposal.
Pennsylvania already allows canned, jarred, and processed foods to use its "PA Preferred" logo. New Jersey officials have been reluctant to take the step over concern about how to regulate it.
But, Murray said, the department has been successful in monitoring packing slips on its pilot products.
"The integrity of the brand is paramount," he said.
Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 856-779-3893 or firstname.lastname@example.org.