DENNIS TOWNSHIP — In the five years since Dave Bohm filled out his last Census of Agriculture form, the nationwide housing market has collapsed and demand has sank for the sod he grows.
When he completed his most recent report, the owner of Bohm’s Sod Farm, on Route 47 in the Eldora section of the township, noted that he had to start selling soybeans and wheat from his 310 acres to make up for turf’s lost value.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census, which is currently under way, records these types of changes in a detailed report that attempts to cover more than 3 million farms across the country. It looks at land use and ownership, production, expenditures, earnings and a long list of other topics.
While farmers and ranchers are required by law to participate, it is often in their best interest. Providing comprehensive statistics of these activities helps policymakers and advocates make the case for getting government’s financial support.
“The census is a great way to substantiate an argument when trying to get money from a federal agency or a private institution,” said Jenny Carleo, agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County. “It’s very reliable data that’s generally accepted.”
That should matter to consumers as well, because that funding can help produce better locally grown products. Last year, USDA grant money funded research on cranberries, blueberries and honey bees, supported promotions for peaches and wine, and helped efforts to expand community gardens statewide.
“If it’s not documented that you have an industry that’s vibrant, then USDA will give the money to someone else,” said Jim Johnson, agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cumberland County.
The last Census of Agriculture found that from 2002 to 2007, the number of farms increased while the average size of farms decreased throughout the state and nation. In New Jersey, the number of farms grew by 4 percent over that period, but the state’s acreage decreased by 9 percent.
Belying its nickname as the Garden State, New Jersey was among the top producers in the country for a variety of crops. It ranked second among states in total acreage for blueberries, escarole and parsley, third for cranberries, fresh-cut herbs, asparagus, collard greens and eggplant, and fourth for bell peppers, peaches and spinach.
More than 3 million forms for the 2012 census were mailed out in December. They originally were due back by Feb. 4, but the deadline was extended to March 4. The final report is expected to be released early next year.
Krissy Young, a spokeswoman with the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, said this year the department is focusing on counting more small, new farms and minority and female farmers. Anyone that produces $1,000 worth of crops in a year qualifies to be counted.
Some of the trends seen in the past census are expected to continue in the next report.
For instance, Carleo guessed there would be more small, organic and woman-owned farms from South Jersey reflected in the new census. For instance, the organic Rusty Acres Farm in Upper Township and the Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May both opened last year.
New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher was reluctant to guess what changes would be seen, but noted an increasing diversity in the state’s products, such as more community-supported agriculture, ethnic crops and other specialities.
“I think we’re going to find that agriculture is holding up quite well in the state,” he said.
Johnson said he would expect a slight increase in the amount of nursery stock, such as trees and shrubs, that are grown in the state. That is already the largest segment of the state’s agricultural industry.
He noted that nurseries were hit hard when new construction slowed during the recession, since there was a dramatic drop in the demand for landscaping work, but he thinks it started to rebound last year.
Bohm, 52, said the market collapse in 2008 was rough on his operation but that change was nothing new for the farm.
It started as a vegetable farm, then turned to turf in 1972, and now half its acreage is grains and legumes. While originally just used as rotational crops to help fertilize soil, the wheat and soybeans are now worth enough to sell as well.
Bohm’s father, Larry Bohm, 74 used to grow lima beans throughout that northwestern part of Cape May County. Now, much of that former farmland he rented from other landowners is completely overgrown by forest.
“It’s unbelieveable how stuff has just been disappearing,” Larry Bohm said.
Meanwhile, Dave Bohm’s son, 29-year-old Zach, lives and works on the farm. He helped convert about 50 acres of trees to farmland in 2006, and it is currently planted with wheat.
After harvesting a pallet of sod that would be delivered to a home in North Cape May, Dave Bohm explained that while farming is a tough job, it’s one that is hard to leave.
“Farming in general is a great way of life,” the third-generation farmer said. “It’s a very challenging way to make a living.”
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