Farming makes New Jersey a better place in many ways. One is obvious during this early part of the harvest season, when residents can indulge in fresh and locally grown blueberries, peaches and soon tomatoes. Those are highlights on many people’s annual food calendars.
Add many vegetables and the apples and cranberries to come and there’s enough good food grown to make farming the third-largest industry in the state, with much of it here in South Jersey.
Farms counterbalance the spreading urban landscape and give the state a pleasant mixed character. Even though people live in the fourth smallest and most densely populated state, they are never far from counties with a rural flavor.
No surprise, then, that public support for farming is strong. A 2014 referendum on dedicating 6 percent of corporate business tax revenues to farmland, open space and historic preservation was approved by nearly 2 to 1.
Last August, a package of four bills became law that provided $65 million of that funding to help local governments and nonprofits with their farmland protection efforts.
Permanently setting aside agricultural property for farming is good for the state and farmers. The sale of development rights gives farmers access to capital while keeping the land they need to farm.
But preserving farmland isn’t enough. New Jersey must maintain the conditions that make the business of farming possible too.
New Jersey farmers say a big challenge is tied up in one of the nation’s most contentious issues — immigration.
Farms have long depended on migrant workers to handle the large amount of unskilled labor required at harvest time.
Farmers say the U.S. immigration system is too complex and restrictive, especially for smaller family farms. They want comprehensive immigration reform to ensure workers can get to them, and they support a special agricultural visa as part of that.
A looming threat to growers is the proposal of a $15 minimum wage in the state. That could greatly reduce the amount of farming that is profitable if there is no alternative minimum for farm work.
Food and growing practices are constantly changing, so farms also depend on food and agricultural research and training in new technology through the Rutgers Cooperative Extension program. But research and training have been starved for a decade with no increase in state funding.
Above all of these headwinds is what New Jersey farmers voted their No. 1 challenge this year — the right to farm.
As the urban landscape encroaches on rural areas, new neighbors seek to interfere with the typical and traditional practices that make farming possible. Even though state law protects farmers who follow recommended practices from being forced to change their operations, the constant need to respond to complaints is costly.
Farming has always been a tough business, subject to the vagaries of the weather and shifting markets. Farmers don’t seem to be asking for too much that New Jersey residents and officials ensure conditions that still make their businesses possible.
No matter how much farmland is preserved, its value won’t be the same if it’s not being farmed. And those blueberries and tomatoes won’t be as fresh if they’re being shipped in from out of state.