Strings dangling from a greenhouse-like tunnel dance when a breeze blows through Shirley Kline’s small farm, a wisp of rural beauty in a cantaloupe patch.

The moment is not lost on the world-traveled farmer of 6 acres in Stow Creek Township, Cumberland County.

“If you don’t take pleasure in being out here and working and getting your hands dirty, this isn’t the life for you,” she said.

Kline represents a dwindling portion of New Jersey agriculture — the smallest acreage farms.

This is a diverse breed of growers far from the expansive patchworks of deep green and dirt brown farmland throughout South Jersey.

Many are too small to operate with wholesale economies of volume, earn too little to hire employees, and fit in farm work between full-time jobs or in retirement. And starting fresh is expensive, from drip-irrigation systems to farm tractors.

Kline, who has two employees and is the president of Cumberland County’s Board of Agriculture, says there is a future in small-scale farming in niches.

She found success the last few years selling crop shares through community-supported agriculture, where this summer 30 to 40 people will pay $450 for a full-share weekly box of kale, Swiss chard, blueberries, figs, tomatoes and other produce for 15 weeks. She runs others in the spring and fall.

Her business plan differs significantly from when she opened the farm in 1998 to grow winter greenhouse raspberries. Rising oil prices made keeping them warm too costly.

Her compact farm includes 13 “high tunnels,” resembling greenhouses, alive with green much of the year.

These capture natural heat, helping her plant tomatoes on April 1, pluck them early June, and extend growing seasons without machines or high energy bills. A sunny winter day feels 70 or 80 degrees inside.

She may run the crop share program in the winter too.

“You really have to sell directly to the public. And then you’re taking some of the marketing work on yourself,” she said. “You’re growing it, you’re advertising it, you’re trying to find your customers.”

A recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture census paints a diverse view of New Jersey farms. The average farm was larger and more productive in 2012 than in the last census in 2007.

The overall number of farms fell throughout New Jersey, by 12 percent.

But the smallest farms — from 1 to 9 acres — dropped by 24 percent, with more dramatic declines in this region: Atlantic County (–32 percent), Ocean County (–38 percent) and Cape May County (–44 percent,) according to a Press analysis of census data.

Cumberland County, the state’s leading crop producer, saw a smaller decline of about 7 percent.

Most Garden State farms are 10 to 49 acres.

Richard VanVranken, Atlantic County’s agricultural agent with Rutgers University, said those five years measured in the latest census were tough for agriculture.

“The last couple of years had turned around and were quite good, but the previous five years were tough, with low prices in markets for vegetables and gluts in the market,” he said.

Farmers with little acreage can grow extremely high-value crops, market them to consumers and be successful enough to run full time, he said. Others can supplement family income.

Adding crop value may involve using greenhouses or high tunnels to extend seasons. Supply and demand dictates these fruits command higher prices.

Competition here has increased too from Florida to Canada, he said.

“With everyone extending their seasons in both directions, those early and late seasons overlap now. Instead of seeing some shortages, you actually see oversupply and those price premiums aren’t there some years,” he said.

Many farms in South Jersey raise things other than vegetables. There are horse farms, Christmas tree farms, and in Jody Clark’s case, a 7-acre cattle farm now raising 14 alpacas.

A retired veterinary technician, she switched from beef cattle to alpacas about three years ago at Hayburner Hollow farm in Belleplain, Dennis Township, in Cape May County.

“As I got older, they seemed to be getting bigger so I decided to downsize,” she said. “With the cows of course there’s more manure. The neighbors usually take it for gardens, but it does begin to pile up and the state has rules on that sort of thing. The alpacas do not make as much manure.”

Clark shears alpacas and sells the wool to supplement retirement income. She’s learning to spin fleece herself and add value to the raw materials by making them into scarves and socks.

“I may not be exactly where I wanted to be, but I’m working toward it,” she said.

Agriculture demands time and patience. Growers on small acreage can be stretched thin.

“They get into this quandary. They have a decent amount of land that needs maintaining and cropping but they don’t always have the time to do it,” said Jenny Carleo, Cape May County’s agricultural agent for Rutgers University. “They’re struggling to find crops to sell locally that are not too labor intensive.”

Wes Kline, Cumberland County’s agriculture agent and husband of Shirley Kline, said field crops such as wheat and soybeans better suit large farms able to handle the large cost of equipment that makes farming more efficient.

He said some of New Jersey’s small farms didn’t disappear but actually became bigger.

The number of farms from 50 to 179 acres grew 7 percent in five years in the state.

“But it’s also so expensive to grow or to farm in New Jersey that unless you have outside income, it’s very difficult on small acreage to be able to survive,” he said.

There are also high start-up costs, even before buying land.

At Shirley Kline’s farm, she bought a little tractor for $15,000, a rototiller for $800, and high tunnels, with one of the largest costing nearly $10,000. There are also drip-irrigation systems needed in sandy soils, she said.

She sells at fewer farm markets — just one now, in Margate, a two-hour, 10-minute round trip without traffic.

Markets work better in high-traffic areas where customers have disposable income, she said.

“I figured you’ve got to take in at least $1,000 a day to pay for labor involved in harvesting, packing, transporting, unloading, setting up, selling, putting away, tearing down, coming home and putting away again,” she said.

Community-supported agriculture, on the other hand, supplies a steady flow of customers who pick up their produce each week.

Jessica Gilligan, a stay-at-home mother of three from Hopewell Township, stopped at Kline’s farm for her CSA.

“This year I decided I’m not going to fight the turkeys, the deer, the moles, the voles and all the other animals in the neighborhood to make a garden,” she said.

Shirley Kline is familiar with farming far beyond New Jersey.

With a bachelor’s and a master’s degrees in agriculture, she worked in El Salvador as a specialist in organic produce, growing lettuce, scallions and spinach and driving the crops down from the highlands to markets and restaurants.

This was a problem in the hot climate with no refrigerated trucks.

Her solution was putting wet, heavy-cotton blankets on a rack in the back of a pickup truck as it descended into the city.

“As you drove the water changed from liquid in the blanket to gaseous form. It takes energy out of the product and we got to the city with a cool product. … It looked so much better we could get three times as much money,” she said.

Before that, she worked on a sweet onion project in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

“I had told everyone else to do all this stuff and had all these ideas,” she said, reflecting on starting a farm in Cumberland County. “I wanted to put my money where my mouth was.”

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