Eastern Fresh Growers is dedicated to serving its customers
Eastern Fresh Growers is gearing up for its summer season, which is off to an excellent start.
“We’re in the middle of our asparagus harvest right now,” said Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers, based in Cedarville, NJ. “Yields are good, prices are good, quality is good.”
Asparagus will run until about June 15, squash will start around June 5, followed a few weeks later by cucumbers, sweet corn around July 4 and peppers on July 10. While it’s too early to get an idea of how those crops are looking, Sheppard is hopeful for a successful season as the world starts to open up again and people plan barbecues and parties featuring these flavorful vegetables.
“Between that kind of get-together and people going to restaurants, it’s all good stuff,” he said. “I understand restaurants are kind of like us and are having trouble getting labor. We have plenty of labor to harvest stuff, but not so much in the packinghouse, so labor is getting to be more and more of a challenge.”
Eastern Fresh Growers is addressing the labor issues by hiring temporary contract laborers for the packing house and H2-A workers from Mexico to do the harvesting.
“We’ve got all but maybe two guys across the border now,” Sheppard said. “Sometimes it’s a problem there, last year it was because the consulate was closed, and it was like pulling teeth to get things done.”
The past year obviously presented challenges, but retail sales were strong as people cooked more at home. One thing that helped make up for the loss on the foodservice side was the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
“We were really worried about the off-grade stuff, and then the boxed business came in and that used a lot of the second-grade stuff. The smaller stuff and misshapen stuff that went to the box program,” Sheppard said.
Eastern Fresh Growers distributes produce up and down the East Coast and west to the Mississippi and sometimes into Texas. It also distributes to Canada early in the season.
“Canada is a good customer until they have their own and then they don’t want to talk to us, which is OK,” Sheppard said. “I wish the American customer would be the same.”
He added that produce from New Jersey is very poplar during the summer season.
“People like local corn, that’s for sure,” he said. “We can sometimes get a premium on it. We don’t grow our own tomatoes, but we sell some for another grower, and there’s definitely a premium for Jersey tomatoes.”
To fulfill the demand for these products, Eastern Fresh Growers is adding more sweet corn, and it’s also doing a little eggplant and growing zucchini squash for the first time in about five years.
“The younger generation wants different things to sell,” Sheppard said. “We’ve had good luck growing squash, but it gets some of the same diseases as our Bell peppers and Bell peppers have always been primary items, so we need to spread the acreage out some, and we’re able to do that now.”
That commitment to growth and fulfilling the needs of its customers is what has made Eastern Fresh Growers the success that it is.