American Farmland Trust report shows New Jersey is keeping its nickname alive 

By Michele S. Byers

Nothing says summer like Jersey tomatoes, blueberries, sweet corn and peaches. We’re not called the Garden State for nothing!

A new report by the nonprofit American Farmland Trust ranks New Jersey No. 1 of all states in preserving its agricultural lands and keeping farming viable. New Jersey is continuing to earn its Garden State nickname.

The report, “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” paints a detailed picture of America’s agricultural landscape and the threats facing farms and ranches. Between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of farmland across the nation were lost to development, or about 2,000 acres a day.

As the nation’s most densely populated state, New Jersey’s farmland is especially vulnerable to conversion to residential and commercial uses.

States differed vastly in their response to dwindling farmland. New Jersey was ranked No. 1 by the American Farmland Trust for using a variety of tools to protect farmland and help farmers. Other top states included Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, California, Oregon and Washington.

To date, New Jersey’s farmland preservation program has permanently protected more than 2,600 farms on more than 237,000 acres – or roughly one-third of all farmland in the state.  And the Garden State has made a bigger financial investment in farmland preservation than any other state.

“We are incredibly proud New Jersey has been recognized by the American Farmland Trust as a leader in the nation for thinking ahead and working smart to create the best environment to support the preservation of farmland and the agricultural industry,” Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher said.

The report’s scorecard is the first state-by-state analysis of policies for preventing farmland loss. Six policy tools were evaluated:

• Purchase of agricultural conservation easements, also known as the purchase of the development rights on farmland;

• Land use planning policies to manage growth and stabilize the land base;

• Property tax relief programs to reduce property taxes paid on agricultural land;

• Agricultural district programs to encourage landowners to form special districts to support farming;

• “Farm Link” programs to connect farmers seeking land with property owners who want their land to stay in agriculture;

• State leasing programs to make state-owned lands available to farmers and ranchers.

According to the report, New Jersey and Virginia were the only two states to use all six of these tools.

Former Agriculture Secretary Art Brown, who led the state’s farmland preservation program from 1982 through 2001, believes using a variety of tools is what makes the program successful.

“You need to have all the parts of the puzzle,” he commented. “I was very happy to hear New Jersey was recognized as the No. 1 program in the country.”

New Jersey was one of the earliest states to put a farmland preservation program in place, thanks in part to Art Brown’s efforts.

In 1983, Gov. Thomas Kean signed into law the Agriculture Retention and Development Act, which established the agricultural easement purchase program to protect farmland in perpetuity.

At the same time, Kean signed the Right to Farm Act, which protects farmers from unreasonable local ordinances and private nuisance actions – for example, noise from farming equipment.

Brown also introduced the popular Jersey Fresh program – widely imitated by other states – to encourage consumers to buy New Jersey produce and farm products.

New Jersey’s farmland preservation efforts ramped up in 1998 when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman established the Garden State Preservation Trust as part of an ambitious plan to preserve one million acres of open space and farmland.

Greg Romano, vice chairman of the Garden State Preservation Trust, noted that state spending on farmland preservation jumped from $15 million a year to about $80 million.

“That was a huge boost,” he said.

Funding for the million-acre program expired after a decade, but in 2014 New Jersey voters passed a ballot measure directing a percentage of the state’s corporate business tax revenue toward preserving open space, farmland and historic properties. This ensures a steady and stable source of funding; the percentage recently rose from 4% to 6%.

Susan Payne, executive director of the State Agriculture Development Committee, said she was gratified to learn of New Jersey’s top ranking in the report, “but this is no time to rest on our laurels.”

“New Jersey farmers have new and evolving challenges facing them, from ever-changing market demands to more volatile weather patterns associated with climate change,” she said. “The task before us is to protect the best of New Jersey’s farmland and support farmers in sustaining the viability of their agricultural operations over the long term.”

And while New Jersey earned the top ranking for protecting its farmland, it is also ranked third behind Texas and North Carolina for having the most threatened agricultural land, demonstrating the continued need for a strong farmland preservation program.

“We can, and must, strive to preserve the state’s farmland base, help farmers continue to be good stewards of the land, and create an environment where farm businesses can thrive, now and in the future,” Fisher said.

“American Farmland Trust’s report shows we’re on the right track, but we must continue to forge ahead to remain a model of the best farmland protection practices for many years to come,” he said.

Every New Jerseyan should be proud to know the Garden State continues to lead the nation and keep its nickname alive.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org