How New Jersey farms cultivate exotic crops

Sunshine-yellow yuzu, walnut-sized limequats and dark-green calamansi punctuated the hundreds of potted trees in Seema Malik’s greenhouse when the call came last fall. It was a friend of Martha Stewart’s—she and Stewart were on the road and wanted to stop by.

“We actually didn’t take it seriously,” says Malik, who, with her husband, Vivek, operates Bhumi Growers, a citrus farm in Bordentown. “We were like, Martha Stewart isn’t driving two hours each way to visit our little farm in the middle of New Jersey.”

Malik is one of a growing number of specialty farmers in the Garden State raising niche crops and garnering frequent plaudits. Customers include chefs looking for new ingredients, ethnic groups searching for flavors from their home countries, and locals excited about tasting something new. “These unique crops are rising in demand in New Jersey,” says Douglas Fisher, the Garden State’s secretary of agriculture. “New Jersey farmers are regularly exploring ways to supply customers looking for new offerings.”

Growing citrus in New Jersey—classified as USDA Zone 6—means moving the trees into the greenhouse as temperatures start to fall. Malik estimates she loses up to 30 trees due to weather, but credits the climate with keeping them free of a disease commonly known as citrus greening that is wreaking havoc on groves in Florida and California. “From what we have learned speaking to researchers, we are actually ahead of the curve by being in a climate that doesn’t foster the disease,” she says.

The state’s growing ethnic population is responsible for much of the interest in niche crops. New Jersey is the fourth most ethnically diverse state in the country, according to a 2020 report by WalletHub, a personal finance website. The two fastest-growing minorities in the state are Hispanic/Latino and Asian, which includes Indians.

Creating demand for a specialty crop is essential for New Jersey niche growers. “We have the most expensive farmland, the highest taxes, and a lot of regulations,” says Richard VanVranken, head of the Atlantic County Extension Department at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. “They have to try crops that will produce a good income, whether that means using unusual crops or taking advantage of our proximity to this massive mid-Atlantic population surrounding us.”

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