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Secretary Wengryn eyes growth for Jersey Fresh brand

By
Ed Wengryn, New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture

As the new Secretary of Agriculture for New Jersey, I want to take this opportunity to introduce myself and share a bit of my background and some of the vision I have for advancing New Jersey’s agriculture industry — particularly the produce industry.

wengryn
Secretary Ed Wengryn at the opening day of the Collingswood
Farmers Market.

Few people know what a unique position the Secretary is in New Jersey government as I am the eighth Secretary of Agriculture in New Jersey since the department was created in 1916. This is largely due to the collaborative nature of how the Secretary is chosen and retained by both the Governor and the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture. Unlike other department and agency heads in state government, the Secretary is not necessarily changed solely because there is a change in the Governor, which has led to several Secretaries serving 20-plus years across several administrations. This stability in leadership allows for long-term planning by the department’s divisions and consistency in programs.

I grew up in the Neshanic Station section of Branchburg Township, Somerset County, and my interest in agriculture and horticulture began as I helped on the Wengryn Family farm, a dairy and field crop operation in Hillsborough.

As a youth, I worked with my father, Myron, raising and selling pumpkins, operating a pick-your-own strawberry field, as well as growing and selling tomatoes to area delis in the summer. School year activities also included many connections to agriculture, as an active 4-H member in gardening, square dancing, and Senior Council, and as a Somerset County Vo-Tech FFA member during high school.

I graduated from Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture (now Delaware Valley University) in Doylestown, PA, in 1986, with a BS in ornamental horticulture, I was employed by the St Regis Sheraton as a house florist, for four years before starting my own business with May Quinn. We co-owned and operated Victorian Bouquet Florist, a retail flower shop that specialized in weddings, corporate work and events, in Branchburg. Despite building a successful business I wanted to do something different with my life and focus on other interests.

This led me to working as a field representative with the New Jersey Farm Bureau, with the main areas of responsibility being member outreach, education, and policy development with Farm Bureau members in the northern counties of New Jersey. My fieldwork emphasis included direct marketing, ornamental horticulture, land use, forestry, sales tax and equine/other livestock issues.

From 2002 to 2004, I served as a confidential assistant to Charles Kuperus, then-Secretary of Agriculture for the State of New Jersey, where we coordinated the development of industry-specific action plans to improve the economic viability of New Jersey’s varied agricultural sectors. Before long, though, I went back to the Farm Bureau and dove back into agricultural advocacy and expanded my work into the legislative arena.

One of the unique roles I held was being the private sector agriculture representative on the New Jersey Industry Advisory Council at the State Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, ensuring agriculture’s concerns were considered, and the opportunities for agricultural businesses to be realized, in the response of the state during an emergency, either a natural disaster like a hurricane, or any agricultural response needed as the result of a man-made, intentional event. That participation was and remains critical for keeping agricultural businesses open and running during emergencies, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

More recently, during the Murphy Administration, I’ve been fortunate to work on legislation to provide wildlife fencing to farmers; updates to New Jersey’s first-in-the-nation Humane Standards for the care and treatment of livestock; a dual-use solar-on-farmland pilot program to help meet New Jersey’s renewable energy goals; expanding Right to Farm protections to aquaculture producers; and creating a New Jersey native plant label for consumers looking to use native plants in their landscape.

My background in government relations and agriculture policy made me a unique candidate for the position of Secretary. In my interviews with the state board, we discussed the challenges and opportunities that face the department and the industry. Improved communications are one area of focus. New Jersey agriculture has a great story to tell, we just need to do better telling it.

To that end, the board and I want to build on program areas we do well. Our best example is Jersey Fresh the first of the state supported marketing programs in the country. The program turns 40 this year. Our goal is to seek improved funding partnerships in the program and reach a broader range of consumers as New Jersey is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country. We are also a state with a population of 9 million with over 100 million people within 150 miles of our borders. It is time the program educated a new generation of consumers about the benefits of the bounty the garden produces on our nearly 10,000 farms. The success of Jersey Fresh has led to expanded brands we will also market. Such as Jersey Seafood, Jersey Bred and Jersey Raised, and Jersey Grown for our ornamental industry, and we now have a new Jersey Native plant label. Putting resources into these programs and creating new programs around organic and regenerative agriculture are a top priority.

I want to expand the marketing opportunities for our many smaller farmers. Helping them gain access to school and institutional food networks and bringing New Jersey produce into our schools through our Farm to School program. Both the state and federal governments are investing in our safety net feeding programs. Here at the department, we are working to connect our farmers with the distribution systems not only for donations but for the purchase of New Jersey Farm products. The goal is to make sure the investment in the purchase of food for our needy citizens reaches the farm gate and our farmers.

Expanding markets and marketing opportunities is the best way to ensure farm viability in New Jersey. As a state we have preserved about one-third of our tillable land for future agricultural use. We seek to preserve more than 500,000 acres and we are halfway there. Stable funding provides the road map, but successful agriculture and taking advantage of innovative opportunities will ensure we do.

One of the more exciting ones is the pilot program for solar on farms. Working with our State Board of Public Utilities and Rutgers University’s Agriculture Experiment Station, we are set to establish farms working in and around solar panels, ensuring that a variety of agriculture and horticultural crops can be produced on the land, and at the same time renewable energy is provided to the farm, the surrounding community and sold back to the grid.

As I have spent the last few weeks talking with the wonderful and dedicated staff here at the Department of Agriculture, I have been sharing this simple line about what we do here in the department. At the end of the day our mission comes down to two things: people and food. Whether we are helping the farmer produce the products, find markets for them or the consumer look to purchase some great variety of items such as our asparagus and strawberries early in the season to our peaches, blueberries, tomato, and sweet corn in mid-summer, to our apples, greens collards, kale, and cabbages into the fall so they can find them in the marketplace. We want to make sure that students who need a school breakfast or lunch know where their food comes from and that New Jersey farmers can assist in providing those meals. When disaster strikes, we want families in need to know the New Jersey farmer and local food system will be there to support them.

As I begin this exciting opportunity to serve New Jersey, I look forward to working with the produce industry on ways we can cooperate and grow the industry together here in New Jersey, across the country and the globe.

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June 12, 2024
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