New Jersey growers of lettuce, peppers and other commodities could benefit this year from California’s freight disadvantage, grower-shippers and officials said.

“When they’re talking $8 per box (of lettuce) to get here, it gives us a lot more margin to work with,” said Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers Inc., Cedarville, N.J.

Fresh Wave Fruit & Produce, Vineland, N.J., is seeing the effects firsthand. One customer who usually sources from California has decided to stick with New Jersey this year for the duration of its lettuce deal, said Nick Giordano, the company’s vice president.

Bill Nardelli, president of Cedarville, N.J.-based Nardelli Bros. Inc., agreed.

If product that sells for $5-8 in California costs $15 or $16 on the East Coast, New Jersey growers are at a big advantage, Nardelli said.

Even as early as May, the difference was taking effect, he said.

“Our freight advantage over the West Coast is really making a market for us,” Nardelli said. “It gives us an edge in those markets we can reach overnight.”

And by “overnight,” Nardelli means all of the major cities east of the Mississippi.

Of course, high input costs hit Jersey growers, too, Nardelli said. He estimates that Nardelli Bros.’ fuel costs and input costs tied to oil prices — fertilizer, chemicals, packaging — are up 30% over last season.

High oil prices aren’t the only culprit, Nardelli said.

“With grain markets so high, demand for equipment is great,” he said. “There are no deals right now on parts and equipment.”

Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton, said New Jersey growers could well benefit from the high costs this year of transporting fruits and vegetables east from California.

That could increase the already strong demand for locally-grown product that New Jersey growers enjoy, Casella said.

“You hear more and more of buyers looking for Jersey or regional product,” he said.

But Garden State growers also are still smarting from high input costs of their own, he said.

“Right now they’re looking at it from their own pocket,” he said.

“They had to do a lot of irrigating last year, and it was very expensive. They’re still more focused on the concerns (related to high input costs) than the opportunities available.”

Jerry Frecon, agricultural agent with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Clayton, said that based on how the 2011 season has gone thus far, he doesn’t know whether the East Coast will see fewer California peaches and other produce commodities or not.

“We’ve certainly seen plenty of nursery stock shipped here from the West Coast,” he said. “The market is flooded.”