Doug Fisher arrived at the New Jersey State Fair last year and learned he was to make a rather grand entrance to the fairgrounds in Sussex County.
Then he found out the conveyance of that entrance: a tractor, something he said he’s never before driven.
“I’m not a farmer,” said Fisher, 68, who was born and raised in agriculturally rich Cumberland County.
Fisher, who now lives in Gloucester County, is the state’s secretary of agriculture, a post he has held since February 2009. He may not have been a farmer, but the produce — and especially the renowned New Jersey tomatoes grown in South Jersey — played a role in his early life.
Fisher worked at the now closed Hunt-Wesson processing plant in Bridgeton. Trucks would line up for blocks in an around-the-clock delivery operation. The smell of tomatoes floated through the city.
Fisher had jobs from building tomato crates to making batches of ketchup. The activity meant more than just processing tomatoes.
“It meant people were working,” Fisher said. “It meant paychecks. It meant people were spending money downtown.”
Fisher presides over a department whose assignment is to keep New Jersey’s $1 billion agricultural economy strong. He is serving at a time when there are arguably more challenges to that economy than ever before.
Competition from other states is increasing. Pressure from residential development continues. Young people aren’t continuing the farm life on which their families depended for a living for generations. There are about 100,000 fewer acres of farmland in New Jersey than in 2006.
The department’s duties also expanded to include more programs — including providing nutritious meals to thousands of school children every day — than the department expected to handle when it was formed 100 years.
But Fisher also contends the challenges provide new opportunities for the department to help grown that $1 billion agricultural economy. That includes support for:
— Farm Link, which connects persons who want to farm for the first time with farmers who have land to rent. The program is designed to grow a new generation of New Jersey farmers.
— A program currently under development that would allow agricultural-related businesses to be run out of old, historic barns.
— Vertical farming, in which crops are grown in multi-floor buildings in urban settings. One example is in Newark, where fruits and vegetables are grown in a former mill under LED lighting.
— More diverse ethnic crops to cater to New Jersey’s varied ethnic population.
— Increased interest in agritourism.
Still, the heart of the state’s agricultural economy remains the blueberries, tomatoes, peaches, peppers, corn, cucumbers and other fruits and vegetables that make up most of the agriculture sales. Fisher said he’s smart enough to lean on farming experts in and out of the department for help.
He said he brings to the department his legislative background — years as a Cumberland County freeholder and an assemblyman representing the 3rd Legislative District. He also brings marketing knowledge: He ran a supermarket that bore the family’s name for 30 years.
Some of his observers said he’s doing a pretty good job.
“I think he’s holding his own there,” said Art Brown, who served as the state’s agriculture secretary from 1982 to 2002 and grows blueberries and specialty vegetables at his Galloway Township farm.
Brown said his background was solely in agriculture, and didn’t contain the government experience that he says is a benefit for Fisher when dealing with the Governor’s Office, the Legislature, other state departments and a variety of agricultural organizations.
“Politics is still a big issue, regardless of what department you’re in,” he said.
“He understands the industry by now very well, by having done his homework so diligently and in terms of the outreach and the public appearances and responding to invitations and all those things that go with being the titular head of the industry as secretary of agriculture,” said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. “He’s a very genuine cheerleader.”
Furey said Fisher, a Democrat and a holdover from Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s reign, is also doing as good as job as possible given the at-best flat budgets provided the department by the Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.
Fisher is dealing with things such as the Jersey Fresh program, whose $1 million budget under previous governors was trimmed to $50,000 by Christie’s administration, he said.
“They get a great bang for their buck,” Furey said of state government. “He’s managing the department as well as he can in those circumstances.”
One of Fisher’s recent visits was to John Dooley’s 15-acre farm on West Avenue in Vineland. Dooley and Fisher strolled through one of several hothouses and amid tomato plants that were almost 6 feet tall.
The two chatted about tomatoes, fertilizer and weather.
Dooley said he sells tomatoes to supermarket chains, produce markets and specialty stores. Running the operation has become more difficult over the years because of food safety and other health requirements, all of which generally means more record-keeping and paperwork.
“But it’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s making people more aware.”
As for Fisher, he said that entrance to last year’s state fair turned out fine. He said he climbed about the 1950s-era Allis Chalmers tractor, figured out what levers to push and drive the tractor into the fairgrounds and through a pretty big crowd.
“Nobody got hurt,” he said.