Why a South Jersey farmer decided to quit smoking

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Men in muddy boots gathered under dull December skies last year, gazing at tractor tires and rototillers, whole fields full of farm equipment the Marino family were auctioning off in Swedesboro, South Jersey .

It’s what happens when a farmer leaves the business, but it still hurts, like someone digging through four generations of memories. Joe Marino, 50, told his father to go hunting that morning. Get rid of that.

Earlier this week Russell Marino Sr., 72, Joe’s father, stood in the sun trimming tomatoes on a raised bed behind the farm where he still lives. All the fields around him were green with someone else’s crops. Most of the heavy machinery was gone.

“From a farm to a garden, he has to keep busy,” Joe said.

When the Marino family decided to step down in 2021, they operated 3,000 acres in their Sun Valley orchards in Gloucester and Salem counties, the largest family produce farm in the Garden State. In June, The Inquirer chronicled the plight of other South Jersey farmers battling low prices, competition across US borders and rising employee wages. A farmer said he was “50/50” on planting crops next year. Another had sold almost half of his property to stop the bleeding.

At this time, Joe Marino was expanding his cold storage business in Swedesboro, his days as a farmer behind him. .

“2019 was the start of the recession for us. We had never lost any money and we lost a lot in 2019,” Marino said. “It was a perfect storm of bad weather, labor struggles and prices were about as low as they had ever been. COVID happened in 2020 and it didn’t help anything. We couldn’t make up the losses. »

While prices had fallen in 2019 due to international competition, the loss of wholesale sales from catering accounts serving restaurants, cruise ships and hotels during the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the blow in 2020.

In July 2021, with prices as low as 2019, Marino made the decision.

“I said to my brother, that’s it, we’re done,” he said. “We love what we do and that’s all I ever wanted to do, but when it’s not there you have to be smart enough to get out there. You cannot sink with the ship.

Marino, the mayor of South Harrison, Gloucester County, and his brother, Russell Jr., were already mired in a dispute with the US Department of Labor in 2019 that continues today. In November of that year, the department announced that a judge had ordered Sun Valley Orchards to pay $556,745 in fines and back wages to 147 agricultural workers, including 96 temporary foreign workers on visas. H-2A.

The problem, Marino said, dates back to 2015 when they first decided to use the H-2A visa program. The Marinos even hired a consultant to help them with the paperwork. The H-2A visa program allows farms to bring immigrant labor to the United States for agricultural jobs. After Labor Department investigators came to the farm to verify, Marino said a paperwork error over whether employees would be given meals — they were — or given a kitchen to cook in. their own food – they weren’t – led to the bulk of the fines.

The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit law firm, took on the Marinos’ case. Bob Belden, an attorney for the institute, said Marino’s case and others brought by the Department of Labor are unique and problematic. The department writes the rules, investigates and prosecutes violations with its own employees, and cases are heard in administrative courts by agency judges, Belden said. Even the appeals process for a Labor Department case, Belden said, is heard internally.

Belden filed a federal lawsuit against the department last year on behalf of the Marinos, seeking an independent venue.

“We believe cases should be heard in federal courts, by federal judges,” Belden said.

The department did not return requests for comment on the Marinos’ trial.

Michelle Infante-Casella, agricultural officer in Gloucester County and professor at Rutgers Cooperative Extension, said the loss of crops from the Marino farm alone could change New Jersey’s place in the agricultural rankings.

“They’ve grown so many peppers and eggplants, just on this farm, we could be knocked down by a few pegs in just those categories,” Infante-Casella said.

The Marinos, Infante-Casella said, “got a rough deal” from the Department of Labor.

Marino said the future of family farms in New Jersey and beyond is in jeopardy, both because of the federal labor issues he faces and a pricing model he can’t see it changing.

“Asparagus prices are terrible. The squash is terrible,” Marino said. “You can’t give squash.”

Supporting individual consumers who stop at farmers’ markets and roadside stalls is not enough to support large-scale farms and farming, and large customers who have fled to cheaper international goods n have no incentive to return.

“If they can get the same products out of Canada for $3 less a box, they will,” Marino said. “I don’t see it getting better. There’s a lot of guys who didn’t come out last year and I think they might come out this year.

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