Why do we care?
New Jersey earned its reputation as the Garden State because its soil and climate make it one of the most productive farming areas in the world.(1) The state ranks in the top 10 in production of bedding and garden plants, cut flowers, foliage plants, potted plants, and bulbs; we supply 20 percent of the nation’s blueberry crop and 10 percent of the cranberry crop. Farmland is important to the state’s environmental sustainability as well as to its image. It recharges our groundwater, provides habitat for wildlife, and protects our soil. Sustaining agriculture in the state is an effective way to sustain both our environmental systems and our identity.
How are we doing?
One way to track the importance of agriculture in New Jersey is to measure the share of land used for farming. As Figure 35.1 shows, this has declined dramatically over the years, although it has largely leveled off in the past five years. The size of New Jersey farms has also decreased, from an average of 123 acres in 1970 to 85 acres in 2002.
The size of the farm sector can also be measured by its contribution to Gross State Product; that is, by the value of agricultural products produced and sold. As seen in Figure 35.2, output from farming has increased over the past decade and jumped markedly in 2000, suggesting that our crops are becoming more valuable per acre. Agriculture’s share in total state output has remained at an almost constant and very low level, however, at less than one quarter of one percent.
What is behind these figures?
The decrease in cultivated land in New Jersey is in large measure due to the increase in property values in much of the state. In 1999 the average per-acre value of New Jersey farmland including land and buildings was $8,370, the highest in the country.(2) Often the returns from farming are not enough to allow farmers to save for college or retirement. They rely, therefore, on being able to sell their land for higher-value development when their children are ready for college or they wish to retire.
The state has introduced a number of initiatives to try to counteract these forces, which may account for the recent leveling off of agricultural land conversion. The 1999 Garden State Preservation Trust Act created the Farmland Preservation Program, through which farmers can receive capital to expand existing operations, reduce debt load, or save for retirement, in return for placing deed restrictions on their property that prohibit its development.(3) However, while these programs prevent some land development, they do not require that it be cultivated, and in some cases it simply remains unused or is used for a single large “farmhouse.” Thus while these programs protect open space, they do not necessarily ensure that agriculture will remain a part of the state’s economy.
What else would we like to know?
To ensure the financial viability of agriculture in a state like New Jersey, we must know which crops are profitable enough to be able to compete with increased property values due to rapid suburbanization. The trends of the past decade suggest that some farmers are finding higher-value crops that let them earn more on less land; we need to know more about this trend to see what potential it offers to agriculture as a whole. We also need to know more about other land uses that may be compatible with agriculture and may offer increased returns to farmers. For example, placing wind turbines for electricity generation in fields might provide enough additional revenue to allow some farmers to keep most of their land in agriculture rather than selling it for development. We would also like to know whether the jump in output in 2000 has been sustained since then. Given the public concern about farmland being held by real estate speculators, it is important to know the share of farmland that is cultivated by its owner.
Targets with which to assess state progress have not yet been established for this indicator.
(1) New Jersey Agricultural Statistics Service
(2) Stony Brook – Millstone Watershed Association. Watershed Management. Open Space and Farmland Preservation. http://www.thewatershed.org/WSM/openspacefarm.html
(3) NJ Dept. of Agriculture New Jersey State Agriculture Development Committee. Our Farmlands, Our Future. The New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program Overview. http://www.state.nj.us/agriculture/sadc/overview.htm