By Michele S. Byers
For those who don’t know New Jersey, “Garden State” might seem like an odd nickname. After all, this state we’re in is the nation’s most densely populated and is projected to be the first to be completely built out.
But with its highly fertile soils and farming history, agriculture continues to thrive. People have to eat … and more and more New Jerseyans want fresh, locally grown foods, including organic and specialty items.
“New Jersey is in a perfect spot, right between New York and Philadelphia,” said Brian Foley, owner of Riverine Ranch in Warren County.
Brian raises water buffaloes and makes cheeses, butter and yogurt from their rich milk.
“You get good products here that you can’t find anywhere else,” he said.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to note New Jersey’s ideal location, comparing the state to a barrel on its side, with New York City tapping one end and Philadelphia taking from the other.
A Camden County farmer named Abraham Browning is credited with coining the phrase “Garden State” in 1876. In 1954, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill to have “The Garden State” added to license plates, overriding a veto by Gov. Robert Meyner.
Today, New Jersey is home to some 9,100 farms encompassing 720,000 acres and generating more than $1 billion in annual sales. We rank in the national top 10 in cranberries, bell peppers, spinach, peaches, blueberries, cucumbers, snap beans, squash, cabbage and tomatoes.
But it’s not easy to keep the garden in the Garden State. New Jersey has high land prices and development pressures, so the state’s farmland needs protection.
And New Jersey is doing just that through a highly successful farmland preservation program. According to the state Department of Agriculture, 2,592 farms totaling 232,570 acres have been preserved through taxpayer-funded programs. Preserved farms exist in 18 of the state’s 21 counties, all but Hudson, Essex and Union counties.
Farmland is most often preserved through the sale of development rights. Farmers who sell their development rights still own the land, which is permanently restricted to agricultural uses. Once the development potential is removed, preserved farmland can become more affordable to future farmers.
Like any business, farming must be economically competitive to survive. Agriculture must continually evolve to keep up with market trends and consumer demand.
Here are some positive trends that are helping New Jersey keep its nickname:
• Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) – On a typical CSA farm, consumers pay up front for a share – also known as a subscription or membership – prior to the growing season. This gives farmers revenue at a time when they have high expenses, but little income. In exchange, shareholders get a weekly share of fresh picked produce during the growing season. New Jersey has dozens of CSAs, ranging from tiny farms with a few dozen shareholders to large farms with thousands of members.
• Farmers markets – Over the past decade, farmers markets have boomed, especially in urban and suburban areas, where they are set up in public places like train stations, municipal buildings, schools and parks. They are a win-win, giving consumers access to farm-fresh produce, cheeses, baked goods, jams, pickles and more – and farmers increased opportunities to sell their products directly to consumers.
• Agritourism – Some farmers are finding success by turning their farms into destinations for urban and suburban visitors. In addition to selling produce, farms attract families with hay rides, corn mazes, farm animal mini-zoos and pick-your-own crops like apples and berries.
• Specialty crops – Like Riverine Ranch’s water buffalo, many farms thrive by offering niche crops and products that aren’t readily found elsewhere. New Jersey is a diverse state, with residents hailing from all around the world, and specialty farm products include fruits and vegetables native to many homelands.
• Certified Organic – As consumers become more concerned with healthy living and agriculture’s impact on our environment, many farms attract customers with produce grown using organic methods. Organic agriculture emphasizes soil health and prohibits most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; genetically modified organisms; or ionizing radiation.
Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Conventional farmers are focusing more on soil health, too, using no-till methods and cover crops to reduce fuel costs, soil compaction and herbicide use. There is a growing awareness of the ability of certain cover crops to sequester carbon to help address threats from climate change.
• Improved technology – Other farmers specialize. For example, Sorbello Farms in Salem County supplies tomatoes for salsas and sauces for two chain restaurants, and is experimenting with using drones to pinpoint infested crops and surgically apply pest treatments only where needed. Co-owner Kris Wilson said farms can reduce pesticide spraying by 80 percent using drones, a cost-saving technology he is offering to other farmers.
Want to help keep agriculture going strong in New Jersey? Support your local farmers and farmland preservation efforts.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org