Last year was difficult for farmers in the Garden State.

A drought watch turned into a drought warning and many farmers were forced to spend a lot of money to irrigate their regular crops, while field crops in many locations were damaged.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering farmers in four New Jersey counties — Burlington, Hunterdon, Mercer and Warren — low-interest disaster assistance loans to cover field crop losses between May and December of last year.

“This would cover things like field corn, soybeans, hay, wheat, anything where you don’t have irrigation happening because the commodity values aren’t such that the grower can justify irrigation,” said Tom Beaver, the director of the division of marketing and development for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

He noted the affected counties were in different parts of the state, reflecting the fact that rainfall in 2016 was widely scattered, and while some farmers got the precipitation they needed, others did not, and there were big differences in rainfall totals, even within counties.

Beaver noted there was a separate disaster declaration last October for Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Mercer, Ocean, Salem, Somerset and Union counties.

“That was sort of a blanket declaration, and it dealt with losses caused by the combined effects of freeze, excessive heat and drought.”

He explained farmers in disaster declared areas work with their county agriculture office to review losses and apply for low-interest loans to help them recover.

Beaver said with all the rain we’ve had lately, the spring growing season is off to a very good start.

“Everything has lined up about as well as it could have so far this year, we had some nice warm weather, so that kind of sped things up. We’ve avoided to this point — knock on wood, fingers crossed — any deep freezes.”

He pointed out “you’re going to see Jersey peaches and Jersey blueberries coming to market soon, and if everything holds up I think we’re going to have a beautiful crop."

Beaver added if we get a lot of flooding rains in the coming weeks and months, “that could have some impact during harvest and can create some potential for disease pressure, but I think at this point all of this rainfall has been beneficial. We haven’t reached that point at which it’s too much.”

He pointed out a lot of early crops are now coming into production.

“We’re seeing asparagus cutting happening left and right throughout New Jersey; leafy greens are coming to market; we’ve heard reports about tomatoes in greenhouses coming to market and even strawberries as early as this weekend,” he said.

“If consumers haven’t been thinking about buying fresh products from New Jersey they ought to be, and certainly looking for products labeled as Jersey Fresh to know it was grown here in state.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com