New Jersey’s roadside farm markets are beginning to open for the season, an annual treat for residents looking to buy the fresh fruits and vegetables that help give the Garden State its nickname.

Just how much they will find at those markets, however, is open to debate.

Spring’s recent cold weather may bring a “great year” for fruit crops such as apples, blueberries and peaches, according to state Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Al Murray.

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Farmers also are starting to “ramp up very quickly” on their vegetable crops to make up for time lost to the chilly and wet weather, he said. Those vegetable crops will be a few weeks late, but will likely produce good yields, he said.

But Murray’s predictions come with a caveat: Everything depends on the weather, which farmers say is becoming increasingly unpredictable and which hampered their growing efforts during the past few years.

For instance, Abe Bakker said he usually plants about 75 acres of potatoes at his 585-acre Rabbit Hill Farms in Shiloh, Cumberland County. He said he is cutting back on that crop this year, in part to reduce his risk of loss should the harsh weather patterns continue.

“I’m not comfortable putting potatoes in if we’re going to get these big storms,” said Bakker, who has been farming for about 35 years. “From what I hear from the other guys, everybody is in the same boat. After almost a lifetime of being in this business, you just can’t say what will happen.”

Still, some farmers are not paying any heed to potential weather problems.

Angelo Favretto said he is planting as usual on the 18 acres of ground surrounding Brassie’s Farm Market in Vineland. He admits that his spinach, broccoli rabe and dandelion crops are not as big as usual, but he has high hopes for his tomatoes, sweet corn and other produce.

The 72-year-old Favretto considers himself an old-school farmer, and one that bases his planting decisions in part on seasonal signs – such as buds on trees – and gut feelings. The fact that farmers can not agree on how their crops will fare this year is not surprising, since farmers usually cannot agree on anything, he said.

“We’re independent minded,” Favretto said. “One day, we’ll say no to something, and the next day we’ll say yes to the same thing.”

Preliminary results of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture show that the average New Jersey farm is larger and more productive than it was in 2007.

The census, which is performed every five years, shows the value of products sold on all New Jersey farms increased from almost $987 million in 2007 to slightly more than $1 billion in 2012. The market value of products sold on the average New Jersey farm – 71 acres in 2007 and 79 acres in 2012 – increased from more than $95,000 to more than $111,000 during that five-year period.

The value of some of the state’s most popular crops continues to place those crops among the top 10 nationally. The federal agriculture department sets the value of some of those crops for 2012 at $80.8 million for blueberries, $39.6 million for peaches, $30.8 million for tomatoes, $28.8 million for bell peppers, and $23.1 million for sweet corn.

Customers at Brassie’s on Wednesday were mostly concerned with taking home the just-from-the-field produce.

“Everything is fresh,” said Vineland resident Linda Morris, adding that she looks forward every year to buying her produce at roadside markets. “It’s all yummy.”

Mary Iezzi, of Buena Vista Township, was buying bags of broccoli rabe. She said she will blanch the vegetable and freeze it so she and her husband can enjoy it through the next winter.

“It tastes just as good,” she said.

Farmers say they still cannot predict for sure how much customers will pay for their fresh produce this summer.

“I would expect prices to be a little bit higher because that’s just the trend on everything,” Bakker said. “Not way higher, unless you have some whacky weather event. If I could predict that, I wouldn’t be driving the tractor.”

Murray, who also said it is too soon to predict prices, is certain of one thing after a colder-than-usual winter and early spring.

“People are just dying for a great Jersey tomato right now,” he said.


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