Summer heat, fuel costs hurting Jersey farmers

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:56

    TRENTON - The intense heat wave and dry spell over the second half of the summer has left many New Jersey farmers burned up - like some of their crops - over reduced yields compounded by skyrocketing fuel prices and greater need for costly irrigation. Some farmers worry about whether they can break even this year, with fuel prices rising and already more than double what they were a year ago. ``We're sitting here at the table last night wondering if we're going to make it,'' said Hal Rifkin, owner of Rifkin Farms in Manalapan. ``I feel like I'm working for the oil companies.'' Rifkin said he's irrigated his fields of sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant twice as much as usual, and other costs have also skyrocketed, from delivery fees to the cost of operating each tractor - now $70 per day, up from $30 last summer. New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Charles Kuperus has asked Rutgers University to study how this season's weather and fuel prices affected the state's farmers. ``We didn't have a drop of rain the whole month of August (and) it never cooled down,'' said Rudy Ploch, owner of the 138-year-old Ploch's Farm in Clifton. ``It hurt a lot of crops.'' His lettuce, cabbage, arugula and leeks for the most part either burnt up or the plants were half their normal size, tomatoes that were exposed to the sun burnt up despite heavy irrigation, and Ploch estimates he's lost 20 percent of his yield. New Jersey Farm Bureau Executive Director Peter Furey said farmers tell him they had a fairly good yield in terms of quality, but quantity was down. Even milk production was reduced when dairy cows were stressed by the heat. ``Net income will be substantially down this year,'' Furey predicted, because farmers can't raise their prices much, but their energy and other costs are way up. For example, just 5 inch-deep watering of a 100-acre farm would cost a staggering $25,000 for fuel, labor and water, according to Furey. At some nursery and sod farms, pumps have been running nearly nonstop. Leonard Pollara, owner of the ``certified organic'' Upper Meadows Farm in Montague, Sussex County, said his operating costs are up nearly 20 percent, but his vegetable yields are down 25 percent. He raises 100-plus varieties of vegetables, plus livestock and lots of field crops such as hay and barley. ``The heat seemed to shut down the plants,'' he said. Despite irrigating more usual, Pollara saw less than normal amounts of tomatoes, string beans and other vegetables, ``no yield at all'' on his broccoli, and couldn't grow the usual late-summer planting for crops such as squashes that mature rapidly. Diane Rea, who farms 100 acres and operates Rea's Farm Market in West Cape May, said she and her husband lost about 75 percent of their crops this summer because the state limits their irrigating. That's the worst they have fared in a decade, and revenue from their market is down at least 40 percent because they've had to stock more produce from other farmers. David Bond, owner of the 500-acre Bond Farms in Delaware Township, Hunterdon County, said his soybean yield is off by at least half, corn grown for animals was not bad, and his wheat - harvested in July - was very good. His biggest problem was higher costs. ``Hay will be very short this winter,'' Bond noted, because the heat cut yields, which will push up prices for the cow and horse feed. For consumers, the weather's impact is mixed. The seasons for favorite Jersey crops like tomatoes, sweet corn and pumpkins will end soon, two to three weeks early in some regions. On the other hand, some farmers with retail stands who harvested vegetables or fruits early after the plants' vines or stalks withered will reduce prices to move the extra produce quickly. In addition, some fruits and other crops that like the heat and are being called ``particularly flavorful'' this year, including peaches, pears, apples, peppers, sweet corn and tomatoes.