New Jersey Agricultre-Barbara Georgoulianos

Barbara Georgoulianos of Sweetwater works with a beehive in the back of her home in South Jersey Tuesday, Oct 2, 2012. Farmers in New Jersey have a variety of skills and methods that separate them from farmers in other states. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture plans to spend more than $800,000 to enhance and develop that specialty farming across the state.

Edward Lea

Barbara Georgoulianos began keeping bees five years ago as a labor of love. She learned through trial and error the intricacies of her new hobby.

She has five hives on her Mullica Township property in wooden boxes, each containing about 50,000 bees. She lost entire hives her first two years before learning proper techniques to winterize the insects, such as making sure there’s enough food and keeping them protected from cold temperatures and wind.

“It’s a learning experience every day,” she said.

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Farmers in New Jersey have a variety of skills and methods that separate them from farmers in other states who have more traditional farms and types of produce. The state Department of Agriculture plans to spend more than $800,000 to enhance and develop that specialty farming across the state.

New Jersey will distribute $816,127 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide new initiatives to help grow the industries for 13 specialty crops. The money will be used to market existing programs, generate new interest from prospective farmers, improve current methods and support programs that use state-grown produce.

New Jersey Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Lynne Richmond said the majority of crops in the state are classified as “specialty crops,” which make $882.4 million in sales annually.

Richmond said New Jersey has more small, family-owned farms than other states, so its farmers need to find a niche to be successful.

“Because people have farms so close to where people live, it’s beneficial to grow what people like to eat,” she said.

Crops such as strawberries, blueberries and cranberries are in high demand and can sell for more money than other crops such as wheat, she said.

“If a business wants to get the most bang for their buck, it’s attractive to grow these crops,” she said. “You don’t need (thousands) of acres to sustain a living.”

The amount allocated to each industry has not been finalized, Richmond said. One recipient will be the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, which will use the money to help preserve the insects through the winter and create a video with suggestions for beekeepers, she said. The state will also supply nutrients and plants with nectar for the bees to pollinate she said.

Donna Connor, owner of Bee-Lieve honey harvesting business in the Sweetwater section of Mullica Township, said help with keeping the bees alive during the winter is very important. Connor is in her third year of harvesting honey but said she made many novice mistakes and lost all of her bees the first two winters.

Now Connor said she will store the bees differently and leave more food so they can survive the winter, she said.

Connor had four hives this year and harvested about 3.5 gallons of honey.

“Anything that keeps bees alive through the winter in a healthy and natural way I think is invaluable,” said Connor, who notes she doesn’t use chemicals.

The department will also provide grant money for the Garden State Wine Growers Association that will be used to develop a campaign that creates a smartphone app for the state wineries and make their websites compatible for smart phones, Richmond said. There will also be a billboard advertisement campaign, she said.

The association has 37 wineries, a dozen of which are in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties, according to its website.

Liz Franco, director of marketing and events for Natali Vineyards in Cape May Court House, said the biggest issue is getting local residents to recognize and buy the local wines.

Franco said few state residents buy locally produced wine and with high taxes wines from other states and countries are cheaper on the shelf.

The vineyard is working with five others in the county to create a joint marketing campaign to let local tourist centers, hotels and restaurants know about the vineyards and the tours of their fields.

“People really don’t know our wine country exists,” she said.

The state recently changed a law that allows state wineries to ship their products directly to its customers.

“We’ve mostly been selling out of our tasting room, but now we have the opportunity to get out there more,” she said.

The vineyard is 22 acres, and the business grows 15 different types of grapes, Franco said. The vineyard uses other fruits in its wine but does not grow the crops themselves because labor costs would be too high, she said.

“We can’t afford to grow other fruits,” she said.

The Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County’s Annie’s Project will also receive money through the program. Its South Jersey coordinator, Jenny Carleo, said it will develop a program next summer to educate women on how to start their own greenhouse businesses. At the end of the program they will complete a business plan to submit to lenders to start their own companies, she said.

Carleo said with the economy slow, some residents are searching for new careers and may be able to find them in the environmental industry.

“We have a lot of people who want to get involved, but the best place to start is having a business plan,” she said.

The organization worked with local farmers on a new crop — the beach plum — that was desirable to grow along the dunes in Cape May and was unique to the market. The crop was first planted in 2006, and David Van Vorst, president of the Cape May County Beach Plum Association, said eight commercial farmers produced about 30,000 pounds of the fruit this year.

“In our market we needed to find value in a new crop,” said Van Vorst who owns an orchard in Seaville. “This was unique to our region. No one was doing it.”

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