LOWER TOWNSHIP — Warren Nuessle leads the life of a typical farmer, feeding and tending to his animals year-round at Bay Springs Farm.

It’s his animals that are surprising.

Nuessle, 75, and his wife, Barbara, raise not cows, goats or chickens, but alpacas, long-necked llamas from South America that boast mop-top heads and woolly coats ready for another New Jersey winter.

“We’ve been in the alpaca business for 11 years,” he said. “It’s been a good decision. We sold 35 animals. We have 38 animals now.”

Besides breeding animals for sale to other alpaca farms, the Nuessles shear their animals for their fleece, spin the fleece into yarn and knit socks and scarves that, they say, are the warmest they have ever worn.

The 10-acre ranch and fleece shop could be the future of farming in New Jersey, local officials said. Increasing development pressure and production costs are forcing farmers to be more entrepreneurial and to go directly to customers to survive. From flowers to vineyards, the state is seeing a spurt of new small operations, even as New Jersey loses more farmland each year to development.

“We have more boutique farms,” said Barbara Ernst, who runs programs to preserve farms and open space in Cape May County.

Decline in farmland

New Jersey lost a higher percentage of farmland to development than any other state between 1982 and 2007, a survey this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Farmland Trust shows.

New Jersey lost 40 percent of its total cropland, or about 331,000 acres. The other four states topping the list also were small geographically: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware and New Hampshire. The largest states, including Texas and California, lost the most agricultural acreage overall, the American Farmland Trust says. The group was founded in 1980 to try to slow the conversion of farmland to developed land across the country.

“The state experienced a lot of population growth. When you look at it in that light, New Jersey was relatively efficient,” spokeswoman Jennifer Dempsey said. “It only converted a half-acre for each new person added.”

The numbers could have been far worse for the Garden State. Dempsey said government efforts have worked to keep farming alive in America’s most densely populated state.

The state launched a farmland preservation program in 1983. Today, about one-quarter of New Jersey’s remaining farmland, or 182,953 acres, is protected for farming.

Counties such as Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland have their own dedicated property taxes to buy development rights to farms through farmland preservation programs. Voters in these counties approved an annual 1-cent tax to buy open space and pay farmers not to build on their land. The owner of a $200,000 property would pay about $20 per year for open space and farmland.

The county writes a check to the farmer, who continues to farm and pay taxes on the land. But the property remains farmland indefinitely, maintaining the county’s rural character.

“Voters have never turned down a bond for preserving farmland,” said Wesley Kline, agricultural agent for Cumberland County.

“They were under tremendous pressure in terms of population growth,” Dempsey said. “The state took steps to protect agriculture in the face of that growth.”

Cape May County voters adopted a 1-cent open space tax in 1991. Since then, the county has preserved 2,937 acres of farmland at a cost of $27 million. At 4.6 square miles, this equals the area of the four Wildwoods.

These programs grew out of an open-space movement in the 1980s to preserve the rural character of municipalities that were seeing more suburbs and consequently spiraling school taxes due to all the new families moving into those suburbs.

Buying local

Today, consumers are less concerned about country aesthetics than preserving their health, Dempsey said. They buy locally from neighbors they know and trust.

New Jersey has capitalized on this notion for years with its Jersey Fresh branding. But the movement has gotten even more specific with the rise of local farm markets.

“People are more concerned about where their food comes from,” Dempsey said.

The local-food movement works under the philosophy that consumers, wherever possible, should buy fresh fruits and vegetables and other goods where they are grown.

“Buying local is in vogue. How long that will last is a question. What is local? There is no definition of what’s local,” Kline said.

Demand for these markets sometimes outstrips supply. Kline said some farmers are reluctant to leave their farms to spend an entire day at a market.

“If you’re away from the farm, you’re not doing work on the farm,” Kline said. “It takes the right type of individual to go to tailgate or farmer’s markets. You have to be interested in interacting with people. But there’s no middleman. You can get a good return on your investment.”

Cumberland County has the most farmland in southern New Jersey. But even there, farmers are learning the lessons of smaller niche farms, Kline said.

“You see a lot of entertainment farming: corn mazes, hayrides, events,” he said. “That has really made a difference for growers.”

A 2006 study by Rutgers University’s Cook College found that most farmers in New Jersey were embracing agricultural tourism.

“In several localities, farmers expressed concern that the increasing rate at which farms were being sold out of agriculture was effectively negating any opportunity for farming to remain viable,” the report found.

But attracting tourists has helped some farms extend their season and keep more of their workers employed longer.

Not all of the associations with tourism have been positive. Some farmers have been sued after customers tripped and fell, or even merely pretended to, the study found. And others reported losing some privacy they enjoyed before they began inviting the public onto their properties.

Reason for optimism

The state’s remaining farms are expected to face increasing development pressure once the economy rebounds and home construction resumes at pre-recession levels, Kline said.

“There will be a lot of pressure on farmland, especially in Vineland, where the traditional growth is happening,” Kline said. “The development pressure is greater here than in the north because land values here are cheaper.”

Despite losing farmland, the state is holding its own in the amount of food produced, Kline said. Production yields have been on the rise, thanks to efficient use of land and innovation.

“How long we can manage that, who knows?” he said.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau does not dispute the census numbers. But spokeswoman Pegi Adam said the numbers tell only part of the story of New Jersey farming.

Despite losing acreage, New Jersey added 400 farms between 2002 and 2007.

“During the last census, we had over 10,000 farms in New Jersey for the first time since the 1960s,” she said. “We’re seeing smaller, more specialized farms, growing a diverse array of things that appeal to niche populations.”

And a growing number of women are starting or taking over New Jersey farms, farm-census figures show. Women were the primary operators of about one-quarter of the state’s farms in 2007, up 18 percent over 2002.

Some growers are catering to the organic market and more foreign influences, with Asian or African vegetables such as yu choy. The state still boasts a variety of farm products.

“You can buy your entire Thanksgiving dinner right here in New Jersey,” Adam said. “From the turkey to the potatoes to the cranberry sauce and wine. It’s all available and easy to find.”

Farmers also sometimes lease access rights to hunters or environmental groups as a means of increasing revenue.

At the Lower Township alpaca farm, the Nuessles are fighting with the Cape May County Tax Board over their assessment. The couple sold the farm’s development rights and dedicated part of their spread to a wildlife habitat program. Take away the ponds, the woods and the equipment storage, and that did not leave enough open pasture to meet the 5-acre minimum under the Tax Board’s strict interpretation, Barbara Nuessle said.

“All of our income is derived from our farm products. Their definition for what constitutes farmland is very narrow. Most of the tax boards are really trying to get rid of all the farmland they can to boost their tax bases,” she said.

But the Nuessles are optimistic about the farm’s future. They have a newborn alpaca named Ruby Tuesday to liven up the stable. And the fall tourism season has seen more customers than ever looking to stock up on Christmas gifts of fleece hats, socks and scarves, they said.

“Anyone who raises alpacas finds their best source of income is the products they make,” she said. “That’s seen us through.”

 

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7247

 

 

Southern New Jersey losing farmland      
County   2002   2007   Percent loss
Ocean   12,239   9,833   19.70%
Atlantic   30,372   30,337   0%
Cape May   10,037   7,976   20.50%
Cumberland 71,098   69,489   2%
State total 805,682   733,450   9%
Source: USDA 5-Year Census of Agriculture