By DANIEL WALSH Staff Writer
There was a time not long ago when it was hard to find healthy asparagus growing in New Jersey, until two Rutgers University researchers developed a disease-resistant variety that saved the crops and created a new asparagus-export business in the state.
Today, the state program that enabled the export business is due for budget cuts.
The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, a web of Rutgers facilities throughout the state that have supported agricultural communities for decades, will lose about $3.84 million, or 15 percent of its $25.6 million allocation, said Larry Katz, the director of the NJAES cooperative extensions around the state.
“Dollars have shrunk so much over the years that there’s very little beyond the salaries,” Katz said.
What makes the NJAES different from many state programs, its proponents say, is that its researchers’ work can translate into real dollars for business, which then translates into tax dollars that bolster the state budget.
That was the case when fusarium crown rot had devastated the asparagus crops in the 1970s. Researchers Howard Ellison and later Steve Garrison, both working in the program, developed the first one and then several other hybrids resistant to the disease.
The Jersey Knight and other asparagus breeds Ellison and Garrison developed can now be found growing not just in New Jersey soil but also in Australia, China, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Hungary and elsewhere.
“It enabled us to do business worldwide,” said Scott Walker, whose family runs Jersey Asparagus, a Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, company that grows the breeds and exports them around the world.
The asparagus comeback is just one example.
Researchers at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory in Commercial Township and the Department of Environmental Protection biologists worked together to develop a means of drastically increasing oyster populations in the Delaware Bay that returned $40 for every $1 invested.
Other Rutgers researchers developed cranberry breeds that have given a similar jolt to cranberry producers.
“Our new varieties of cranberries are being purchased by producers all over the world because they mature faster and they produce more fruit per plant,” Katz said.
Sheppard Farms in Lawrence Township, perhaps the state’s largest vegetable producer, uses a plastic culture and drip-irrigation growing method for its peppers, tomatoes and other crops. That method was learned from former Cumberland County agriculture agent Norm Smith.
“He traveled all over the world,” said Tom Sheppard, one of the farm’s owners and a Cumberland County freeholder. “He went to Israel where it started. He brought it back here and showed us how to do it.”
Those success stories are what drive the appeals to maintain funding for the NJAES, which has remote stations in every county except Hudson County and services in all 21 New Jersey counties.
The anticipated reductions come from the $175 million cut to higher education, deriving from Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed $29.3 billion budget. Rutgers must determine how the approximately $4.5 million to be cut from its School of Environmental and Biological Sciences — formerly known as Cook College, which houses the NJAES — will play out. Katz is estimating a 15 percent loss in state funding, which makes up about two-thirds of NJAES total funding.
“It was a dreadful process of having to cut a budget as deeply as we did,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie. “We were facing a $10.7 billion deficit. That meant everyone had to suffer, with only a few programs avoiding it. That’s not ideal, and it’s really regrettable, but it had to be done. We couldn’t continue on the path we were on.”
Christie’s budget isn’t finalized, and the business-friendly work at the NJAES remote stations could make it a potential target for salvaging, Sheppard said.
The NJAES also includes a variety of other educational and agricultural programs, the most notable of which may be the 4-H program.
Today, the research is still happening, and staff at the remote stations regularly work with farmers to address problems that could hurt them financially.
“If we got something wrong with a plant, we take it over there,” said Bob Blew of Centerton Nursery in Upper Deerfield Township. “They have a nursery specialist who can take a look at it. That’s a simple thing that’s nice to have.”
In Atlantic County, researchers are keeping watch for the spotted wing drosophila, an insect that has plundered blueberry crops in the Pacific Northwest and southern U.S. An invasion of that insect could devastate farmers in the “blueberry belt” centered in Hammonton.
“They can keep abreast of the research done at different universities and get it out to us in forms we can use,” said Art Galletta, whose family runs Atlantic Blueberry Co. in Hammonton.
At the NJAES farm in Upper Deerfield, researcher Dan Ward is experimenting with peach trees that grow almost straight upward instead of in their gnarled and curled shapes. If they were to grow straight, they could be harvested mechanically and more efficiently, said Brad Majek, a weed specialist and director of the facility.
Likewise, researchers are looking at how to make apricots bloom about a week later so they’re not killed by late March frosts, as they often are now. That way, the fruit could be more economical to produce, Majek said.
Garrison continues to work with asparagus breeds, despite his retirement. A small vineyard grows with Chambourcin, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Traminette varieties, as researchers search for an ideal grape that wineries can grow in New Jersey.
“Our focus is community agriculture,” Majek said, “and in South Jersey, there’s a lot of that, so that’s one of the reasons we’re here.”
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