Locally Grown. Those familiar words turn up on printed and homemade signs at produce stands and markets across New Jersey.
They're supposed to mean that the produce comes from nearby fields, that it's part of the state's vaunted Jersey Fresh brand - not trucked in hundreds of miles from Georgia or North Carolina.
Concerns that some out-of-state produce is being mischaracterized have prompted the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture to call for a rule placing limits on what can legitimately be described as "Locally Grown."
The board, the policy-making body of the Agriculture Department, has proposed that items promoted as local come from farms in the Garden State or within 30 miles of its borders.
"We're not against any entrepreneur selling produce from out of state," said Rob Swanekamp Sr., president of the eight-member board. "But if the peaches are from Georgia and the tomatoes are from North Carolina, label them that way.
"It's truth in advertising; that's exactly what it is," he said. "The term locally grown has been applied incorrectly." The proposal "is a way of curbing that practice to make sure that state farmers have a good, fair chance to market their product."
States including Maryland, Connecticut, and Vermont have similar rules, state agriculture officials said.
"We're not trying to be heavy-handed," Swanekamp said. "We're trying to help by promoting and protecting agriculture in the state."
Some produce from Pennsylvania, Delaware, or New York might still be identified as local in New Jersey because of farms' proximity to roadside markets and stores along the Garden State's borders.
"We just want to be truthful and let people decide," said Swanekamp, owner of Kube Pak, a wholesale producer of greenhouse plants in Allentown, Monmouth County.
Action may take time. "We started talking about this a year or two ago," Swanekamp said. "We were hearing from farmers, and they didn't like it.
"The term locally grown resonates quite clearly with consumers these days," he said. "The Jersey Fresh brand has been a marketing tool to get it into the minds of the public that Jersey is the place where you find fresh produce."
This week, the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council emphasized the quality of produce marked "Jersey peaches," which, officials said, are fresher than others because they are picked locally when mature.
Also promoting the state's farm products this week was Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher, who toured produce stands in Bridgeton, Pittsgrove, Vineland, Buena Vista, and Sewell.
"We are in the height of our growing season and roadside farm markets around the state are carrying a full array of Jersey Fresh produce," Fisher said, referring to the branded fruits and vegetables, which are required to come from New Jersey. "Many of these markets are run by families who have been farming in New Jersey for generations."
This month, he sent a draft of the proposed rule to delegates to the New Jersey State Agricultural Convention, to be held in February in Atlantic City.
"The board has been concerned that the term 'Local' is being applied to produce grown well beyond New Jersey and our surrounding region," Fisher wrote. "Since public support of 'Locally Grown' has become such a huge national trend, the board seeks to protect the interests of New Jersey's farmers. . . . We would welcome any informal comments you might have."
Nothing will happen "without the full blessing of the farmers of the state," Swanekamp said. "We're trying to get the process started."
Convention "delegates will comment on the rule, then vote," he said. "If approved by the full convention, great."
The rule would be published in the New Jersey Register and followed by a 90-day public comment period before being sent to the governor for final approval and implementation.
If the rule is not approved, the process will be discontinued "until a more suitable rule can be crafted," Swanekamp said.
"I think the rule will be approved and could be implemented by the summer of 2014," he said, "but we're waiting for the convention to discuss it and decide how we will move forward."