You might be surprised to hear this, but Douglas Fisher, Secretary of Agriculture for the State of New Jersey, has never owned a farm, never leased one, never harvested one and never fretted over the groundhogs in the pastures on one.
OK, possibly he’s experienced that last worry, but it didn’t come up in the interview.
Yet the man who has not farmed, who hasn’t managed one, who did not grow up on one, that man nevertheless did grow up to be New Jersey’s Secretary of Agriculture. In doing so, he has arguably impacted operations in its fields and pastures, its waters and woodlands, its existentially vital business of agriculture, more than has any single farmer in the state.
Appointed to the cabinet-level position in 2009, Fisher has continued on the job into a third administration, despite the usual vagaries of state politics, economics, and business trends. Although the Secretary of Agriculture does not make the laws, he is tasked with a huge smorgasbord of duties involving administration and analysis of agriculture programs, regulations, policies, and projects; marketing initiatives for the state’s bounty of produce and livestock inventory; development and conservation of the Garden State’s ag resources, such as waterways, marine coastline businesses, forestlands, greenhouses and nurseries; distribution paradigms for surplus foods to schools, institutions, and charities; coordination of the department’s legal and legislative systems; and heading the liaison efforts with the federal government when agricultural disaster occurs.
Oh, and by the way, he’s your neighbor, having left the bustle of Bridgeton three years ago to relocate to Clarksboro where farming and generations of history are inseparable. He and his wife, Bonnie, have three grown children. They aren’t farmers, either.
It’s a fair question to ask why a non-farm fellow has been thrice named the head of the department of agriculture for the entire state, holding the position under both Democrat and Republican administrations. But it’s the wrong question. He has a record of success. The question is, how did he get it without a career in the field. Pun intended. The answer reveals how sometimes politics in governance works in just the way your civic book said it should.
Fisher lived most of his life in the Bridgeton area, where his father owned a wholesale meat business. “My grandfather started as a cattle dealer,” Fisher said. “He had no truck so he walked his cattle from Salem County to Cumberland County. When I was a child my father was in the wholesale meat business, and sold to restaurants and institutions.”
The business end of things led Fisher to Bryant University in Rhode Island, where in 1969 he earned a degree in business administration. Out of college, he signed on with the New Jersey National Guard, serving from 1969 to 1975 and followed his father into the meat business. He ran an independent market in Bridgeton, Fisher’s Market, for 30 years, he said. After decades in supermarket sales, Fisher moved into property, becoming a realtor specializing in business property.
But all the time he was in business, as retailer or property seller, Fisher listened. He listened to the complaints and the needs of the livestock farmers, and of the farmers who supplied hay and grain to the livestock, or vegetables and fruit to the public. He listened to the frustrations vented by business owners and to what they wished would change. He listened to customers and bankers, to people with plenty and people with little resources.
The stories had an impact on him. He not only listened, he learned.
He ran for Bridgeton City Council and was elected to it in 1989. When his father, a member of the Cumberland County Freeholder Board for 15 years, passed away, the Board asked him to fill the unexpired term. “I didn’t think it was right at the time, though,” Fisher said. “I didn’t take it because I didn’t think I had the experience.”
A year later, he changed his mind and began a decade of serving on the Freeholder Board. That service led to a run for the state Assembly as a Democrat and he won his seat in the 3rd District in 2001, rising through the ranks to become Assistant Majority Whip. He left the Assembly upon his appointment as Agriculture Secretary in 2009.
“I didn’t plan for any of this,” Fisher said, a little wistfully, remembering. “But you find you love the things you’re able to do for the public.” That was how he explained his foray into Trenton politics.
It’s also why he kept learning, figuring out ways to “do for the public,” said two friends who made the journey with him.
“I met Doug 20 years ago,” claimed New Jersey State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney. “We started out as freeholder directors. I was Gloucester County and he was Cumberland County. He’s a friend. A great friend. He’s an honest person,” Sweeney continued. “He will tell you what he thinks. If he says to you, ‘I’m going to try my best,’ you know he’ll do his best.” Sweeney, a Democrat, was elected to the state senate in 2001, and has remained close friends with Fisher, who currently calls himself “non-partisan.”
“The farmers love him. Doug listens to the farmers and he knows how Trenton works.”
Former Paulsboro Mayor and current Assemblyman and Deputy Speaker of the House John Burzichelli also prizes Fisher’s friendship. “He is a wonderful person. It’s a friendship I highly value,” he said. Burzichelli, a Democrat, was elected an Assemblyman from District 3 in 2001. He called Fisher “a person who’s always maintained a common touch, who’s comfortable with people of all walks.
“He understands the business of agriculture and his ability to build relationships with the farm community has (caused them to) embrace him. His business experience complements what is needed to do as Secretary of Agriculture.”
While the three men won elections to their congressional seats, only Fisher earned appointment by the governor to a cabinet position. He served both Democrat and Republican governors: Gov. Jon Corzine (D), Gov. Chris Christie, (R), and current Gov. Phil Murphy (D). But he was not nominated by any one of them.
In a process unique to our state, the New Jersey Board of Agriculture, whose eight members are elected annually by delegates from the agriculture community, nominates a candidate for secretary of agriculture. The governor can accept or reject the recommended person.
Both Sweeney and Burzichelli recalled that Republican Gov. Christie was against appointing Democrat Assemblyman Douglas Fisher to the cabinet-level post he had held under Corzine.
“(Doug) wasn’t a farmer,” Sweeney said, “but he was close to the agriculture community. He was a freehold director in one of the largest agriculture districts in the state and a businessman. When Christie took office, he was going to replace Doug and I said that the farming community was lined up in favor of Doug. That’s why Gov. Christie re-appointed him. The farmers respected him. They loved him,” Sweeney said.
Burzichelli told the same tale. “The farmers spoke up loudly when Christie was wondering if he would keep (Fisher) on. Loudly.”
In other words, Fisher pleased the agriculture community and that community rallied to keep him on, advocating to their congressmen, who warned the governor. The people spoke, and when that happens, politics is working.
Good-natured, on the quiet side, yet out-going, Secretary Fisher makes it a priority to know the state’s ag industry and its workers. He listens by nature and he is still learning, but he can rattle information off about apiaries to zoology. By now, Sweeny said, “Agriculture is a way of life for him. I’ve been on many farm tours with him and he knows the farms, the farmers, so when he tells me something important, I value what he says and I’m in the Senate. I can take that information and act on it.”
Fisher, who as a purveyor of goods and real estate, honed a knack for marketing and brings that skill to the ag industry. He visits farms, livestock events, nurseries, any and every thing with a connection to the state’s ag business.
He knows the landscapes, the seasons and the storms. He knows the crops and he knows the farmers. “I think agriculture is a very noble profession,” Fisher said. “Farmers grow crops for food and clothing and shelter that people rely upon.” His goal is to help them do it.
He also pursues conservation of wildlife and worked as an assemblyman on regulation that bans the harvest of horseshoe crabs. “I wanted to save the red knot,” Fisher recalled.
The red knot is a sandpiper that migrates to the Arctic from South America, stopping to gorge on horseshoe crab eggs in May. “But the crabs were being harvested for conch bait,” Fisher explained, and the red knots began to decline.”
Fisher carries an encyclopedia of facts in his head and relishes releasing them. “There are (about) 700,000 acres of farmland in New Jersey out of five million acres total,” he said. “The state produces 100 or so different crops. It’s an agricultural powerhouse.”
Some of those crops don’t come from farms. The state is second in the nation in sea scallops gathered by fishermen, and number one in quahogs, with 16 million pounds of them brought in, Fisher recounted.
In land harvests, New Jersey is third in the country in the value of cranberries harvested, fifth in blueberries, second in peaches and eggplants, seventh in tomatoes, and twelfth in sweet corn, according to the numbers in the Secretary’s head. The state is also tops in farmland preservation, he said.
“Since 1985 New Jersey has spent more money, $1.7 billion, for farmland preservation, the number one in the country,” he said. The Farmland Preservation Act was initiated in 1983.
Secretary Fisher is optimistic about farming in the state, pointing out that our ag businesses sell globally but adapt locally. While he would not speak about the effect of federal tariffs on produce, he suggested the ag industry here would work it out.
“Farmers have to be adaptive, that’s what they do,” he said, citing the increase in non-traditional farming such as vineyards, in agri-tours, in new farming methods. He noted, “Between Washington D.C. and New York, there is plenty of demand for what we produce. There has been no drop in acres planted this year.”
In response to an email question on his proudest accomplishment, the Secretary responded, “Two things come to mind. One is how we have raised New Jersey’s participation in school breakfast programs from 48th lowest of the 50 states to near the top third. New Jersey is one of only four states where the responsibility for school feeding is vested within the agriculture department and not the education department.
“More directly related to our farms, we have made great strides in recent years in raising even further the profile of our Jersey Fresh brand and all of the products New Jersey agriculture produces. We’ve become very involved in using extensive social media in that effort, and I think that provides a more direct line of communication to New Jersey residents and people all over the world about fabulous New Jersey agriculture.”
Again, in other words, he seeks to provide ways to help constituents, a cardinal principle of the civics books’ section on ‘What Succeeds in Politics.’ Secretary Fisher, after nearly 30 years in politics, listening and learning, offered his own lesson.
“My background was always in food and agriculture and I found I loved serving the public that way. I know the farmers and they know who I am and I pretty much have friends in all parts of the state where I can stop in and chat and hear what’s going on, what they need.
“The farming community is not looking for good politics. It is looking for good policy,” Fisher said. The Secretary of Agriculture has succeeded because he follows that goal.
— By Jean Redstone