From an auspicious start in flight, produce evolves (Off the Secretary’s Desk)
(Editor’s note: Douglas Fisher is the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture.)
On the cloudy afternoon of May 17, 1922, a crowd at the Framingham, Mass., airport anxiously awaited a plane, due to arrive between 3 and 3:30 p.m. with its special cargo to be delivered from “the wilds of New Jersey.”
Loaded aboard was anywhere from 800 to 1,000 pounds (accounts differ) of selected asparagus, the nation’s very first agricultural air freight shipment, coming from Mullica Hill after being grown in the beds of the Raccoon Creek in Swedesboro.
The flight was launched to prove that aviation could be a “fledgling means of transportation.”
The “aeroplane” made the 450-mile trip in about five hours, including a stopover in Long Island for refueling, and was hailed as an amazing success of promoting a crop in an early East Coast harvest for a waiting crowd of anxious devotees.
Press accounts from the day hailed the flight and described its perilous ending as the pilot, surrounded by thick clouds over New England, was guided into Framingham by two other aircraft.
One news account explained that the trip “… was made to demonstrate that produce from New Jersey farms could be cut and delivered to distant markets on the same day.”
This is one of the many firsts that agriculture in New Jersey is known for, and to this day, the progress from the farmers and fishers of New Jersey continues to flow.
Thinking back, the goal was to expand the boundaries of how far and fast product could get from the field to one’s table. Carbon squander (my term) was not even a thought back then. Advancing the availability of anything grown from a faraway place was all that mattered. Most consumers of the time didn’t concern themselves with how the crop was grown or what was used to grow it.
Today, while produce is shipped by any and all means of transportation, the public is engaged and asking more and more about the sustainability factor.
Because of those concerns, the whole idea is now turned on its head and the shortest distance, the closest mile, is what gains massive traction now in the media. Once again, New Jersey is showing true innovation in the field of agriculture, as operations pioneer indoor growing, and those concepts mesh with our new legal definition of “local.”
In our current world of agriculture, the “buy local” approach and the emphasis on marketing agricultural products as coming from as close to the consumer as possible have held strong for a decade or more as the most important elements to consumers.
More than any other aspect of the growing process, location has risen exponentially as a selling point to customers. It’s assumed that the shorter distance an agricultural product has to travel, the more likely it is to be as fresh as it can be.
This, of course, wasn’t always the case. In earlier times, not all regions of the country had figured out how to produce a wide variety of items. You’d be more likely to see one state or region “specialize” in a given commodity – like Idaho with potatoes, or Florida with citrus fruits.
That first flight of fresh New Jersey asparagus was a milestone that sparked interest in moving farm products by air around the country, partly because of the novelty of air transportation at the time and partly because shipping perishables by air gave them a better chance of arriving fresher than was offered by truck, rail, or boat, which could take longer.
As time passed and air-travel improvements came at a break-neck pace, moving perishables by air became more and more popular. It wouldn’t be long before some of that shipping moved from Point A to Point B within the United States to include international shipping. Suddenly, U.S. residents had access to fresh agricultural and horticultural products from all over the world.
And yet, ironically, the consumer market for produce has made a 180-degree turn and returned to customers preferring to buy produce that is grown, harvested, and packed as close to their homes as possible. Consumers still buy some items that come from far-away lands, but the more customers become aware of things like food miles and their impact on climate change, the more the reasons grow for preferring something more local.
Another part of the reversal back to local preference has come from farmers here in New Jersey figuring out how to grow crops that previously would have had to come from overseas or at least thousands of miles away within the United States.
Over the years, we’ve heard of New Jersey farmers incorporating items like peppadews or Asian pears that previously were available only through importers who brought them here from other countries or continents. The more those types of produce can be grown here in New Jersey, the more they become part of what consumers want grown closer to home. That includes being grown indoors in urbanized areas as much as it does being grown in a more traditional setting.
Where do we go from here? Entire businesses are based on trying to predict where these trends will head next. Right now, we do know that the local movement remains strong, and consumers want to support the farmers they live near.
The story of how we enjoy the literal fruits of our farmers’ labor will no doubt have some more twists and turns that people will look back on a hundred years from now with the same fascination we feel for that perilous asparagus flight in 1922. Is it too wild to wonder if our descendants might someday reverse the process and “tele-port” to the farm itself as the produce is being picked?
Time marches on.