Deep cuts to the Jersey Fresh program from a cash-strapped state budget have worried some local growers, who have reaped the benefits of what has become a nationwide model for promoting locally grown produce.

“Going into the growing season, that is probably one of the major concerns of the growing industry,” said Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton.

“This year it leaves very little, if nothing, for promotion, so it’ll be relying mostly on prior promotions carrying over, which is not the best scenario to be in.”

Al Murray, New Jersey assistant agriculture secretary and the department of agriculture’s marketing director, agreed with a terse summary statement, “Our Jersey Fresh budget is bad.”

He elaborated, “The program was cut dramatically down to a budget of $150,000 this year from what at its peak was once $1.2 million.”

Over the past three years, the budget has dropped from $850,000 to $450,000 to this year’s $150,000.

“It’s a pity. We all wish it was there. It was a great program. A lot of states followed in the footsteps of what New Jersey did,” said Chris Cunnane, national sales director for Santa Sweets, Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Philadelphia. “I’m just hoping that it doesn’t have too much of an effect.”

Pete Macrie, president of Paul J. Macrie Inc., Hammonton, N.J., said he hopes the state has enough money left in its budget to do some good.

“All of these local products are really great. There’s not enough emphasis on what’s good that they do,” he said.

“That’s one of those things that you don’t see, it’s not obvious,” said Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers Inc., Cedarville, N.J. “We have one of the best programs, a model for a lot of other programs. That’s hard to quantify.”

Sam Pipitone, president of F&S Produce Co., Rosenhayn, N.J., agreed it is hard to gauge the impact of a sharply reduced advertising budget.

“Some people continue on their own, they market the Jersey product on their own label,” he said. “You definitely don’t want to lose any marketing capability available to you.”

Bob Von Rohr, director of marketing and customer relations for Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J., said the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the Jersey Fresh program have always been instrumental in helping growers, marketers and retailers, and there is no apparent impact because of the cuts this early in the season.

“We haven’t seen any major impact on their support for growers this year,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything majorly different.”

Vince Consalo, president of Wm. Consalo & Sons Farms Inc., Vineland, N.J., said the Jersey Fresh program is a good one for the growers and the agriculture industry in the state, and he would prefer to see the full budget reinstated to avoid any ill effects down the road.

Murray said the state has grown from 35 to more than 120 farmer’s markets in the last several years. This “huge phenomena” highlights the impact of the Jersey Fresh program as parallel to the national interest in buying locally grown produce.