Dec 31, 2012
Jerry Frecon retires from New Jersey Extension duties

After 30 years of helping New Jersey fruit growers, Jerome Frecon has retired from Rutgers Cooperative Extension. His last day was Dec. 31.

“You have county agents, and then you have superagents,” said Gary Mount, owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton, N.J. “I put Jerry in the superagent category.”

If Mount had any questions about fruit production, particularly peach production, Frecon was the first person he would ask.

Frecon didn’t join Extension to become a “superagent,” however. He joined because he needed a job. In 1982, he was the research director for Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards. The company was liquidating some of its holdings at the time, including his position, so he called a friend at Rutgers Cooperative Extension. He had earned a master’s degree in plant science from Rutgers University in 1968, so he had connections.

Frecon, now 68, grew up on the family fruit farm in Berks County, Pa. His brother Henry and sister Teri manage the farm today. Frecon is a “silent stockholder” and occasionally gives advice, but he’s not involved in the day-to-day decisions, he said.

After Frecon left the farm, he taught ag- and fruit-centered classes at Delaware Valley College for several years before joining Stark Bro’s. He focused on research and marketing at the nursery, and assumed his career would stay on that course. He never envisioned spending his career with Extension, but it turned out to be an excellent fit.

“I enjoyed the job very much,” he said. “I’m happy I pursued a career in Extension and at Rutgers.”

As an agricultural agent and professor, Frecon covered several counties in southern New Jersey, where most of the state’s fruit and nursery acres are located. Based in Gloucester County, he worked with apples, small fruit and wine grapes, but peaches consumed most of his time. Eventually, Frecon became head of the Extension department in Gloucester County, a job he relinquished in July 2011.

He studied and taught multiple subjects, including weed control, IPM and pruning, but his research focused mostly on variety development. Earlier and later peach varieties have expanded the season for New Jersey growers, and Frecon evaluated many of the varieties they use today. Many of them came from the Rutgers breeding program, he said.

“He knows more than anybody in the U.S. about peach varieties,” Mount said. “He’s got encyclopedic knowledge.”

The varieties that were planted when Mount started growing nearly four decades ago have been replaced by varieties with superior flavor, size, color and disease resistance. Frecon had a lot to do with the change, Mount said.

New Jersey’s tree fruit industry has changed in other ways since Frecon joined Extension. In 1982, a lot of the area’s apples were grown for processing, but now most are sold direct from local farm and farmers’ markets. In the same period, the region’s peach industry went in two directions: bigger and smaller. The big growers who could handle chain-store requirements did fine, while the intermediate growers got smaller and started selling direct, Frecon said.

He’s also witnessed a decline in southern New Jersey’s tree fruit acreage over the years, due to development pressure from suburban Philadelphia. That trend slowed down in the last few years, he said.

The research Frecon did early in his Extension career got taken over more and more by administrative and fundraising work. There’s been a terrific shortage of funding in Extension lately – which might affect whether or not someone will replace him. Growers are fighting to fill the position, but the financial situation is uncertain, Frecon said.

“They may replace the position, but they’ll never get another Jerry Frecon,” said Santo John Maccherone, a peach grower in Gloucester and Salem counties.

If not for Frecon, Maccherone isn’t sure he’d still be farming. All the work Frecon has done – whether in variety development, insect control, weed control, labor problems, you name it – has been critical to the existence of Maccherone’s orchard.

“Whenever you have some type of problem, the first place you go is to Jerry,” he said. “He’ll give you the answers. You can’t measure that.”

“We’re going to miss him,” Mount said. “I hope he stays in the industry in some way.”

Sounds like he will. Despite his retirement, Frecon plans to give a lecture on peach varieties at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Convention in late January.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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