Heat and Drought Wither Farm Fields in New Jersey

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

FOR the last 15 years Fred Grasso has made his living growing tomatoes and peaches on his southern New Jersey farm in Mullica Hall. But he isn't making much of a living this year.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it," Mr. Grasso says.

Here at the Vineland Produce Auction farmers sell their produce to brokers who then sell it to buyers for supermarkets.

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Grasso has some peppers to sell now, but not much else.

He is not alone. Many of the 8,100 farms in New Jersey have been hard hit by a withering drought and days on end of sweltering 100-degree-plus weather.

New Jersey may be known for its chemical plants and petroleum tanks, but farming, especially in the state's southern sector, is a sizable industry that generates $600 million a year in crop sales.

Recent rain and cooler weather is a hopeful sign to some farmers that they still may be able to salvage the summer. But for others it is already too late.

Many of the tomatoes and peaches that make up the bulk of Grasso's 250-acre farm have been destroyed by the drought and heat. "We lost 40 percent of the tomato crop on sunburn alone," Grasso says. "It was just so hot that the tomatoes were scorched. We worked for nothing this year."

Grasso's farm is irrigated, but days of record temperatures this summer were just too much for the plants.

He says he realizes that some years are going to be better than others. But he says costs have risen to the point that a bad year can bankrupt a farmer.

"Before when you had a disaster, you could absorb it," Grasso says. "Costs weren't so high. The price of things like equipment, insurance, and gas keeps on going up. But the price we're selling our produce for stays the same. So when you have a loss, it's a big loss."

Farmer Genie DeCou also has had a bad year. "It's just not possible to grow things," says Mr. DeCou, owner of a 500-acre nectarine and peach orchard in Shiloh, N.J. The crops have been defenseless. They're cooking."

Savings will tide over Grasso and DeCou until next year. But not all New Jersey farmers may be as fortunate, says Jack Rabin, a county agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Mr. Rabin says many farmers are losing from one-third to one-half of their crops because of the weather.

"Many are already pushed to the edge because of lackluster demand for produce caused by the recession," he says. "Some farmers may not make it."

Dan Racket has decided enough is enough. Mr. Racket owns several tractor-trailers that transport produce up and down the East Coast. But not for much longer.

After a slow summer he has decided to sell his tractor-trailers and buy some dump trucks. "I'm going into the asphalt buisness," he says. "There are always roads to be paved."

Racket says he's been hauling produce for 22 years. "It's never been this bad," he says.

Racket will be getting $1,000 to transport some watermelons from the produce auction to supermarkets in Syracuse, N.Y. But there are no watermelons yet at the market for sale. Racket figures he has a four-day wait, which will cut substantially into his profit margin.

"All I can do is sit around and wait," he says. "It's been like this all summer long.

And the hauler says new state lines haven't changed the picture. "I've worked in Florida this summer, I've worked in Georgia. Everywhere it's the same story," he says. "The crops are all destroyed."

Racket says if things go well he will break even this year. If not, he will incur a big loss.

"It's just not worth it," he says.

The dry weather has offered one bonus for some farmers growing peaches - a sweeter-tasting peach.

"With the heat and the dryness, the sugar content of the fruit goes up," says David Russell, general manager of the Jersey Fruit Cooperative Association in Sewell, N.J.

Mr. Russell's cooperative harvests half the state's $25 million peach crop. Russell is still optimistc that he can make a profit this year if the cooler weather continues.

"Our irrigation has helped us a lot," he says. "We lost some yield, but we don't consider it a disaster. We still think that it can be a good year."

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