Ag Planner, Policy-Maker Resources:
Looking Back on NJ Farmland Preservation

Even the best designed program to protect farmland resources will ultimately fail
if farming is not profitable.

-G.S. Halich, Equity Issues in Farmland Preservation.

For five decades, New Jersey has proactively sought to preserve its agricultural base. New Jersey was an early adopter of farmland assessment, which allows qualified farmland to be assessed for tax purposes according to its use value in agriculture rather than full market value. The cornerstone of farm retention efforts in nearly all states, this policy brings farm real estate taxes in line with farm incomes. New Jersey voters have long supported financing of an aggressive farmland preservation program. As of 2011, $1.5 billion has been spent to permanently protect more than 2000 farms and nearly 200,000 acres of farmland from development.
Ag Land Development
New Jersey has among the strongest legal protections for farmers in the nation. Farmers following accepted agricultural management practices (AMPs) are afforded strong “right-to-farm” protections against overly burdensome state and local regulations as well as nuisance complaints from neighbors that may object to normal by-products of farming. The retention of agriculture – as both an industry and a land use – is also embodied in state planning efforts that date back to the 1980s and the more recent surge in interest in “smart growth.” The New Jersey Department of Agriculture drafted an agricultural smart growth plan to aid municipalities with crafting more proactive farm retention strategies and climates that support agricultural development.

How are we doing?
Judging the success or failure of our efforts is difficult and dependent on your perspective. Environmental enthusiasts may see methods that stop development of farmland as successful because habitat is preserved. Urban & Regional planners may see methods that influence land-use balance to conform to accepted practices as successful. Municipal governments may view preserved farmland as a success because it contributes to local tax rolls while utilizing little to no services. Policy makers may see preservation of farmland as “open space” which has been documented to be necessary for successful communities. So in many ways these methods can be viewed as successful for our state.

However, despite strong efforts to stabilize the rapid disappearance of active farmland in our state, we continue to lose important farmer-farmland “units” that make up our active agricultural base.

This is especially true of our “Ag in the Middle” farms – mid sized farms which in aggregate work one-third of New Jersey’s cropland, produce one quarter of all agricultural products sold, and maintain one-fifth of the market value in land, buildings, and equipment. “Ag in the Middle” farms represent the core critical mass of agricultural infrastructure in our state.

Barriers and pressures still exist which negatively impact farmers, farms of all sizes, & farming in New Jersey. Laws enacted for other purposes, have had unintended consequences impacting farm viability by altering land value and property rights. If your measure of success includes the entrance of new farmers into economically sustainable ventures, preservation of mid-size family farms existing on the urban fringe, intergenerational transfer of farms, and the absence of regulation hamstringing New Jersey farms competing against out of state entities, then New Jersey agriculture remains endangered.

Judging success or failure also depends on what you view to be a “farm.” What is it that we are attempting to preserve? Consensus on this is difficult because farming is a continuum. Developing policy to help farmers is complicated because of the wide range from lifestyle farming to livelihood farming. For example, in our state we find: farms that are essentially large gardens, farms that augment lifestyle, small/beginning farmer operations, farms that are not the main source of income, mid-sized farms that support multigenerational families, large family farms, community farms, historical preserved farms, & large non-family owned farms.

Ideally, agricultural preservation methods would encourage all farms to flourish. Ideally, the resources put forth toward agricultural preservation would support “farming culture” which requires critical mass in order for agriculture to be sustained in an area. Agritourism is a tool which spans the farming continuum. It is a way to augment resource and landuse planning, policy and legislation for the purpose of preserving farmers, farms, & farming.

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