By Michele S. Byers
Every once in a while, a “blast from the past” comes along to remind you how much things have changed.
That blast was a packet of old “The State We’re In” columns from the early 1980s – nearly 40 years ago. They addressed what was then a looming crisis in the Garden State at the time – the loss of farmland at a rate of about 7,000 acres a year.
“Acreage in farming in this state we’re in has shrunk by almost a third in just 20 years,” lamented David F. Moore, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s executive director at the time. “That’s pretty scary when we think how many centuries there’s been farming here. Also, back in 1961, New Jersey had 15,200 farms. In 1981, farms total only 9,100.”
Reasons for the loss of farmland, Moore noted, included rising energy costs, mechanization, government subsidies for land development, and high prices from developers.
But there was hope. Then-Governor Brendan Byrne had just placed a $50 million Farmland Preservation Bond Act on the ballot.
The plan to save New Jersey’s farmland would use state matching funds to allow counties to buy agricultural easements – also known as buying development rights.
“The result will be that a farmer can reap part of the financial harvest a developer would offer, while keeping the ownership and ability to farm,” Moore wrote.
The Farmland Preservation Bond Act was passed by voters in November 1981 and the rest is history. Preserving family farms by purchasing the development rights is now a standard practice. And it’s been a great success.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent “Census of Agriculture” – released in April and based on 2017 data – the number of farms in the Garden State rose by more than 800 since the previous census in 2012. New Jersey now has 9,883 farms – more than in 1981.
The census showed that the acreage of land in farming grew by almost 20,000 acres since 2012, for a total of 734,000 acres.
“We take great pride in knowing that so many more residents of our state have decided to become intricately involved in agriculture,” said New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher when the census was released. “The increase demonstrates the many and diverse opportunities that are available right here in the Garden State. Our farmers have proven to consistently achieve high marks for the outstanding crops they produce.”
Much of the agricultural gain can be attributed to New Jersey’s farmland preservation efforts over the past 40 years.
The Garden State now has 2,639 preserved farms on 236,096 acres in 182 municipalities, according to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s most recent figures.
And more farms are preserved all the time, thanks to the public’s 2014 vote guaranteeing a stable source of open space and farmland preservation funds.
In fact, just last week, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and its local, county, state and federal partners pooled their resources to purchase the development rights on an 81-acre farm in Pilesgrove Township, Salem County. The farm is in an area where thousands of acres of farmland had already been preserved.
When farmland is preserved through the sale of development rights, the farmers still own their land, but the land is permanently deed-restricted to agricultural uses.
Farmers typically use the proceeds to strengthen their operations by reducing debt, buying additional farmland, or investing in equipment and repairs. Preserving their farmland also makes it financially possible for many farmers to pass their farms down to the next generation.
Although farming in the Garden State still faces many challenges, it’s great to know that the Farmland Preservation Program never stops working toward keeping agriculture and farming traditions alive in the nation’s most densely populated state.
For more information about New Jersey’s farmland preservation program, go to https://www.nj.gov/agriculture/sadc/farmpreserve/progress/.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.