Reaping what they Sow

What's it worth... to keep the farm?

What’s it worth… to keep the farm?

Why exactly is New Jersey called the Garden State?

According to a recent New Jersey Farm Bureau survey, nearly half of us aren’t sure. Some background: In 1876 Abraham Browning, an attorney, politician, and the owner of Cherry Hill Farm, which gave its name to the town that now stands in its place, coined the term, comparing New Jersey, two-thirds of which was rolling farmland, to a big barrel, open on both ends, from which Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers gobbled up the state’s agricultural bounty. The nickname was cemented in 1954, albeit over the objections of then governor Robert Meyner, who vetoed a bill to add the slogan to the state’s license plates, saying, “I do not believe that the average citizen of New Jersey regards his state as more peculiarly identifiable with gardening or farming than any of its other industries or occupations…. Indeed many of our people regard the state as preeminently a residential community.”

Meyner had a point: By this time, the state, which was rapidly giving way to suburban development, was only 37 percent farmland, and far better known for manufacturing. In just a few years, it would become one of the most densely populated states in the nation.

Flash forward to the present, when New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, roughly 14 times more crowded than the rest of the country, and Meyner’s veto—which, of course, was overridden by the state Legislature—seems all the more prescient. But for better or worse, we as a state have stuck by the nickname that still graces our license plates. And actually, Garden State is more suitable than it might seem.

Agriculture is New Jersey’s third largest industry, behind pharmaceuticals and tourism, generating $65 billion a year. The state ranks second in the country in production of both culinary herbs and blueberries, and it boasts more horses than Kentucky. A full 806,000 acres, or 17 percent of the state, still comprises farmland, a designation that includes nurseries, vineyards and orchards, horse farms, and produce and livestock farms.

But farmers in such a populous state face peculiar and daunting obstacles. The cost of land, for one, is skyrocketing, with farms worth on average of $9,245 per acre, the second highest value in the nation after Connecticut. With land at such a premium, New Jersey farms are smaller and their expenses are higher. Average hourly labor, for example, which represents about 40 percent of the cost of farming, is $6.15 here, compared to the federal minimum wage of $5.15 (next year, the state will raise the hourly wage to $7.15). And smaller farms produce less by the trailer load than larger ones, so they have less clout in commanding top prices for their goods. New Jersey farmers spend lots of time doing paperwork, of all things—to record which pesticides they’ve used, to bring skilled agricultural laborers over from Mexico, to document their slaughter practices. “I think I spend 80 percent of my time filling out forms,” one farmer observes, only half-joking.

New Jersey farmers also must contend with things that farmers in more rural states are less likely to encounter: residential neighbors who might complain about pesticide spraying, a noisy tractor early in the morning, or animal-rights activists who favor a hunting ban on deer, bears, or geese, all of which cause threaten crops and livestock. Then there are the legislative issues: water allocation, land-use regulations, trade issues, tax laws. “There are a lot of rumors among farmers about what might happen down the road,” says Greg Donaldson of Donaldson’s Farm in Mansfield Township, Warren County. “Our profit margins are so small, changes in regulatory issues are a nail in the coffin.” It’s no wonder the state loses 9,000 acres of farmland each year to development. Considering all this, how many of us would wake up each morning at five to plow a field or spray crops, as does Rony Lee of Lee Turkey Farm in East Windsor, knowing there’s a developer out there who will pay $15 million for your property?

In large part because our farms are disappearing so quickly, we New Jerseyans feel a certain affection for them. A 2004 poll from the state Farm Bureau found that 85 percent of state residents believe that farms should play an important role in the state’s future; we visit local farms and go out of our way to buy local produce in about the same number. Anecdotal evidence, too, suggests that interest is growing. Says Lee, “Ten years ago I couldn’t get high school kids to help me. Now I have a waiting list of them who want to help.” Perhaps even toil has become romanticized. “Twenty years ago, people from around here were close enough to farms to know it was hard work,” Lee says, “Nowadays they think it’s fun.”

New Jersey is supporting its farms not just on an emotional level, but legislatively as well. Towns are helping farmers by adopting right-to-farm ordinances, which allow farming in residential areas without undue restrictions. The 1999 Garden State Preservation Trust Act, the largest of its kind in the nation, received an additional $142 million in August. The act, which safeguarded 13,000 acres of farmland in 2004, allows farm owners to sell development rights in exchange for a guarantee that the land, even if sold, will remain intact working farmland. To keep suburban sprawl from encroaching on open space, towns are also passing laws that restrict reducing the size of building lots. But not all the laws work quite the way they’re intended to. The “downzoning” issue is particularly contentious. It seems like a good idea: If you don’t want your town overrun by development, increase lot size to limit the number of homes that can be built. But where farmland values are concerned, it can have the opposite effect. If you have an 81-acre plot—the state’s average size of a farm in the state—and the zoning laws change from 1-acre to 5-acre lots, your land may suddenly be worth one-fifth of what it was before, because it now could support only 16 rather than 81 homes. Downzoning, Donaldson says, “only makes me want to accelerate my exit strategy.”

More farmers, though, seem enthusiastic about the efforts to preserve the state’s farmland. Older farmers, in particular, like the idea of preserving their land for future generations while getting some money for retirement and to help their children pay the inevitable estate taxes when they inherit the farm. Younger farmers, too, acknowledge the benefits of the program, although they worry that selling their development rights limits their options for the future. It’s a tough tradeoff, but several farmers interviewed are considering the preservation option. Rony Lee has a young son who says he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.
But even farmers who have little in common—some who run strictly organic operations, others who sing the praises of pesticides; some whose families have farmed for more than a century, others who are first-generation farmers—all agree on one thing: You can preserve all the land you want, but without farmers, what will become of it? The farmer, not the farmland, “is the real endangered species,” says Donaldson. The business conditions for farming are so challenging and the profit margins so small, while the land, in turn, is so valuable, that there are few incentives to continue. Some even speculate that the preservation program will enable the wealthy to purchase land for large nonagricultural estates below the going rate, and the theory isn’t completely farfetched. Just search through the listings on a few real estate Web sites: “Set on 23 acres of preserved [Hunterdon County] land, this 200-year-old, 5-bedroom gem also includes a beautiful in-ground heated pool, barbecue area, tennis courts… and newer barn offering eight stalls”. The challenges inherent to suburban farming demand that those who remain in business be savvy and relentlessly hardworking. Across the state, the survivors are those adept enough to carve out a niche. Jonathan White of Bobolink Dairy, a 43-head dairy operation in Vernon, produces artisanal raw-milk cheese from his grass-fed cows. Whereas conventional dairy farmers get about $16 for 100 pounds of milk, White turns 100 pounds of milk into 12 pounds of cheese that sells for $20 a pound. He sells his cheese at the farm, on his Web site, at farmers’ markets in Manhattan and Westchester, and to fine restaurants like Serenäde in Madison and Andre’s in Newton. White, who is the first in his family to farm, doesn’t understand how his neighbors’ dairy farms survive, because they don’t have enough land for the kind of high-volume operation that would make business viable. “I call them last-generation farmers,” he says.

Greg Donaldson agrees. “You need a thousand cows or no cows,” he says. “You have to have volume to make money.” The Donaldson family got out of the dairy business in the early 1980s because of poor profit margins and diversified their 700-acre spread into three businesses: a plant nursery, field crops, and a farm stand, each run by a different Donaldson brother. Greg got the idea to run a retail stand early on, because, as the youngest son on a busy farm, “I was sick of being in ‘waste management,’ ” he says. As a teenager he started planting a few acres of vegetables a year and selling them to passing commuters. “At fourteen I was making $100 or $200 a day,” he says, and his older brothers, who were struggling in the dairy, took notice. Donaldson’s farm stand, a market that is open from Easter to Thanksgiving, evolved into an agritourism venture where people can pick their own vegetables. The nursery, run by David, and the wholesale plant and vegetable business, run by Gary, are also successful.

Other farmers have similarly adapted to turn a profit. Greener Pastures Farm in Boonton has a burgeoning business selling goat meat to Muslims, Italians, Haitians, and others. And the most profitable item at Lee Turkey Farm is tours, Lee says, “that, and the corn maze.” Experts predict that the trend likely will continue, with the farms that survive incorporating niche retail markets, agritourism, and other specialties. Still, pressure from development is expected to continue, especially in populous counties such as Mercer. “It’s much more profitable, unfortunately, to grow houses than to grow crops,” says Al Murray, director of the state Department of Agriculture’s Division of Marketing and Development.

But perhaps the least sentimental about the future are the farmers themselves. When asked what he expects for farming in the state, Lee sums it up best. “I’m not sure,” he says, “but New Jersey has good, rich soil and people who are interested in taking care of their gardens. That won’t go away just because the farmers do. We’ll always be the Garden State.”

Christina Kozma is a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

Article from November, 2005 Issue. 

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