Keeping Them on the Farm

A state program protects fertile land from development,
helping New Jersey’s agricultural tradition survive.

The Suydam family has been farming in Franklin Township since 1713. Carrying on the tradition are the present-day Suydams: from left, Lucas, 17; mom DeeJay, 49; J. Paul, 20; Jenna, 21; Matthew, 23; and dad Ryck, 50.
Photo by Robert Yaskovic/Agency New Jersey.

The Suydam family has been farming in Franklin Township continuously since 1713 and on their current farm since 1840. Ryck Suydam, who has managed Suydam Farms since 1985, wanted to keep it that way. But several years ago, the winds of change were not blowing favorably. Over time, condominiums, replacing farmland, had bumped up against two sides of the 300-acre Somerset County farm; a third side was bordered by busy Route 27.

Then, in 2003, town leaders began discussing the possibility of using a practice known as downzoning to cut back on the kind of high-density, service-intensive cluster housing that bordered Suydam Farms. Shouldn’t that have eased Ryck Suydam’s mind?

On the contrary.

Downzoning makes undeveloped land (such as farmland) less attractive to developers, who profit more when they can build more homes on smaller lots than they do when (under downzoning) they have to build fewer homes on larger lots. The reduced appeal to developers can cut the market value of the land. “If the town had followed through, it would have effectively taken away most of my equity,” Suydam says. Given this risk, it might not have been worth holding onto the farm.

Then Suydam and his father, Abe, had an idea. In 2001, Franklin Township had been awarded a state Municipal Planning Incentive Grant—or PIG grant, as it is affectionately known—to finance local preservation projects. For farmers, this is a good deal, since not only do they receive a price for their farmland at something approaching current market rates, but they retain ownership of it. And while this preserved farmland is worth less on the open market than before its development rights were sealed off, it can still be sold to another farmer or even, say, a nursery and garden center. In short, preservation could help the Suydams solve the dilemma they faced.

“We knew that, if we were ever going to preserve any part of our land, this was the time to do it,” Suydam says.

The family took steps to preserve the portion of their property that fronted Route 27. On March 25, 2008, the parties met to sign the final papers. The total cost of preserving 130 acres of the historic Suydam farm—for technical reasons, the family was only reimbursed for 108 acres—was $12,354,218. Of that, Franklin Township kicked in a little more than half, using part of the PIG grant. The remaining cost was split between the county ($2 million) and the state ($4,072,28). Said Suydam at the signing: “We are pleased to be farmers in Franklin and extremely glad that our farm will remain part of New Jersey agriculture forever.”

Farming is rooted deep in New Jersey’s history—so deep, in fact, that the earliest agriculture was carried out by the Lenni-Lenape tribe. Once the Lenni-Lenape gardens gave way to larger, more formal European farms, agriculture remained a central part of the New Jersey economy through most of the nineteenth century. Despite industrialization, by 1900 there were still 34,000 farms operating in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources. As late as 1950, upwards of 24,000 New Jersey farms grew a variety of fruit, vegetables, and other products.

But following World War II, the state’s agricultural land base came under assault, prompted in part by the GI Bill, which helped returning soldiers pursue their American dream of home ownership. “In the 1950s and ’60s, you saw a remarkable expansion into the rural parts of New Jersey, which were historically agricultural,” says Brian Schilling, assistant extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural, Food, & Resource Economics at Rutgers University.

This expansion, he says, had multiple effects. For one thing, thousands of acres of farmland were gobbled up by developers. The land grab was not simply the result of commercial and residential construction, but of the roads, utilities, and other infrastructure it required. By the late 1960s, the number of farms in the state had dipped to 8,500, a nearly 64 percent drop in fewer than two decades. With farmland becoming scarcer, the law of supply and demand took over. Land values rose dramatically, especially in the central and northern part of the state.

For many farmers, Schilling says, the dynamic was a classic good news/bad news scenario. On the one hand, farmers saw their most tangible asset, their land, rapidly shoot up in price, to a level far higher than it would have been had its assessment remained strictly pegged to agriculture. On the other hand, higher land values meant higher taxes. For many farmers, the burden of higher taxes, combined with eye-popping per-acre prices, was hard to ignore. Many sold out to developers.

In 1964, on the strength of a public referendum, lawmakers threw a partial lifeline to those who wanted to continue farming. The Farmland Assessment Act permitted farmlands to be taxed at their agricultural use value rather than their market value. The 1964 assessment act slowed the rate at which farmland was disappearing, experts say. But as a series of state commissions in the 1970s and early 1980s concluded, slowing the loss of farmland wasn’t necessarily sufficient to ensure a stable and viable agricultural industry. Something more, experts felt, needed to be done.

Enter the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program (NJFPP). Begun in 1983 as the result of two groundbreaking pieces of legislation, NJFPP is a state-administered, locally coordinated, voluntary program. To be eligible, a farm must be located within an Agricultural Development Area as designated by specially-appointed county boards.

Within NJFPP, there are sub-programs. In some, the state acts with a local government partner, as in the Suydam Farm case; in others, it links ups with a nonprofit partner, like the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. In still other cases, it works alone.

To date, the NJFPP has preserved close to 188,000 acres of state farmland; approximately 545,520 acres remain unprotected. In Hunterdon, Burlington, and Salem counties alone, some 79,000 acres have been permanently reserved for agricultural use; even in Somerset County, where development and other pressures have reduced the number of farms to less than 100, development rights have been restricted to agricultural use on roughly 7,600 acres.

“Our goal is to achieve somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 to 600,000 acres of permanently protected farmland,” says Susan Craft, who since 2005 has been the executive director of the State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC), the eleven-member board that administers the program.
That goal is sure to be expensive. Already, the preservation program has cost close to $1.4 billion. Most of this hefty tab has been picked up by the state, which to date has spent $900 million to fund the program. The other roughly $490 million has come from municipalities, counties, and nonprofits. Among states with similar programs, New Jersey ranks first in money spent, followed by Pennsylvania and Maryland, according to data from the American Farmland Trust, a research and advocacy group. New Jersey ranks fourth among states in number of acres preserved, largely because of its historically high land values.
Despite this, many observers in and outside New Jersey’s agricultural industry think the money overall has been well spent. Certainly, the public seems to like the program. During the last gubernatorial election, when the recession, high property taxes, and a burgeoning state deficit put New Jersey voters in a cranky mood, the state’s $400 million Open Space Bond issue, which included $146 million for the SADC, passed with a 53 percent majority.

“That spoke volumes,” says Craft, who believes the public is “very passionate” about wanting to preserve the harvest, beauty, and educational benefits of the agricultural landscape.

Still, there are people who think the preservation program could be doing more. “The program is okay, but it’s not enough,” says Jeff Tittel, chapter director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “The fact that it relies on buying farmland from willing sellers doesn’t end up preserving enough land or keeping the state’s agricultural industry viable.” Among other changes, Tittel and his group would like to see agriculture-only zoning; a stable source of open-space funding; and a change in the Farmland Assessment Act to permit steeper tax penalties on land that’s converted from an agricultural to a non-agricultural use.

Parts of the program have also been criticized by some smart-growth advocates, who complain that it sometimes tilts the scales away from rational development in areas that need it, such as some of South Jersey’s rural counties. “SADC itself tries very hard to strike a balance,” says Dianne R. Brake, president of PlanSmartNJ, a nonprofit that has a cross section of industry and other representatives on its board, including the New Jersey Builders Association. “But some towns over the years haven’t made good choices about the land they preserved.” Conservationists question this assertion, citing Brake’s ties to the development industry.

Farmers who end up participating in New Jersey’s preservation program do so for a variety of reasons. Some, like Ryck Suydam, see it primarily as a defensive maneuver, one that protects what they love to do from the asset depletion of downzoning. For Kip and Jill Stults in the Cranbury/Plainsboro area, the move was a defense against the threat of eminent domain.

In the late 1980s, the Stultses were operating Stults Farm, where they grew fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Like other farmers, they had concerns about the future, following a round of downzoning in the area. But they had another concern: a proposed highway linking Route 1 with the New Jersey Turnpike, which, on paper, passed diagonally through their farm. If the state Department of Transportation made good on its plan, it would have effectively sliced the farm in two, “decimating it,” says Alan Danser, a farmer who has served on the Middlesex County Agricultural Development Board and the SADC. (The Stultses declined to be interviewed for this story, citing their dawn-to-dusk workload.)

There was a possible remedy: The Stultses could apply to the county agricultural board to have their 90-acre farm enrolled in a special eight-year preservation program, which might give them some protection from the threat of eminent domain. The application process took eighteen months. In 1990, the state and county approved the preservation plan for Stults Farm. It not only proved sufficient to stave off the DOT’s threat of eminent domain, but it eventually gave the couple enough capital to add 100 acres of adjacent, already-preserved farmland to their original 90 acres.

“Kip and Jill were the pioneers,” says Danser, who was the second farmer in the area to apply to the NJFPP.

Farmers also see the preservation program as a way to remain competitive by expanding their operations. Using the capital they gain from preservation, they can buy new equipment or land. One of those farmers is William N. Brooks Jr.

In 1965, at the age of 18, Brooks had something of an epiphany. A freshman at Penn State University, he knew that it was fall plowing time back on his grandfather’s farm in New Jersey, and he was homesick. Located in Elmer, the 156-acre farm had been in the family since 1773. Growing up, Brooks had spent many summers there, working beside his grandfather in the potato fields; in a very real sense, the farming life was part of his genetic makeup. Leaving college, he returned to the farm, joined the operation, and eventually, under the guidance of his grandfather and cousin, took over the operation and ownership of the 156-acre Salem County spread.

In time, with the help of his wife and business partner, Diane, Brooks introduced new agricultural practices and entered into cooperative agreements with area growers. “In agriculture, the profit margins were shrinking,” Brooks says. “As with many businesses, you either expanded your operation or you didn’t survive.” Survival was critical for another reason, too. By 1998, it had become apparent that Diane and Bill’s son Michael, then 16, also had the farming gene. Someday, they knew, Michael would take over from his father much as Bill had taken over from his grandfather. Brooks wanted his son to inherit a thriving business.

To fund their expansion, most of which has occurred over the past five years, the Brookses bought farmland and preserved some of it, taking the proceeds from the sale of the development rights to purchase still more farmland. Several years ago, they also bought their first tract of already-preserved land, which was priced cheaper, because it had been stripped of its development rights. Today, Dusty Lane Farms, as it’s known, is 1,500 acres, about 1,000 of which have been permanently preserved. Michael Brooks, now 28, is the managing partner. In addition to potatoes, the Brooks family grows spinach, tomatoes, carrots, corn, peppers, soybeans, and wheat, much of which is mechanically harvested and sold on the wholesale market.

“When there are good agricultural grounds, everyone benefits,” says Brooks. To date, there are 27,670 acres of preserved farmland in Salem County, leading the state.

Some farmers, like J. Evans Jennings, Jr. and his wife, Sharon, are motivated to preserve their land for farming even if it won’t be farmed by their descendants.

The Jenningses own the 34-acre Riverforks Farm in Winslow Township, Camden County. In the late 1980s, husband and wife realized that none of their five daughters had any interest in continuing the farm, which Jennings had bought from his father in 1960. (The Jennings family has been farming in the area since 1677.) “They all know how hard the work is,” Jennings says. “They think their old man is crazy.”

The couple could have easily cashed out. “We started getting offers for millions and millions of dollars from developers, but there’s only so much money you can use,” says Jennings, 72, who adds that he and Sharon, 66, had worked all their lives and planned adequately for the future. Preservation struck them as the perfect solution. It would give them some additional capital, but it would also keep their farm a farm. Says Jennings: “I saw all farms around me disappear, and the state was coming up with something that would actually preserve some open space, so that my great-grandkids would know what a farm was like, if they could just see it from the road.”

Last March, Jennings and his wife closed the deal, receiving $885,000 from SADC for locking up the development rights to their land. It was much less than they would have received from a motivated developer or land speculator, but Jennings doesn’t mind: “I used my preservation money to build a nice big barn. I plan to stay awhile.”

At this point at least, the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program seems to be humming along nicely. Farmers who’ve participated in it typically feel they’ve been treated fairly. Farmers who haven’t taken the plunge seem to view it as a viable “conservation option,” in the words of Farm Bureau executive director Peter Furey. Counties with farmland have embraced it, while some 230 municipalities have enacted dedicated taxes to fund it locally. And, perhaps most importantly, the public seems supportive.

Of course, like so much else in the Garden State, farmland preservation as an idea and a program will always be subject to the crosswinds of politics. To date, the Christie administration seems to be a fan, but there are no future guarantees, especially if the state’s economic picture doesn’t improve. As for towns, many now regard farmland as good ratables—that is, land that pays more in taxes than it eats up in services. But how long that will continue is anyone’s guess. Even now, faced with a sputtering economy and a cooled-down development market, many municipalities with preservation money to spend are “taking their foot off the gas,” says the SADC’s Susan Craft.

Craft, a woman on a mission, advocates a bolder approach: “I would argue that when the development market is cool is exactly the time you want to be putting your foot on the gas—and preserving as much land as you can.”

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