Two years ago, on April first, Garden State farmers gave up precious time by leaving their farms and taking their tractors to protest the elimination of the state's Department of Agriculture. The proposal, to sever this agency from state government by then Governor Corzine, was seen as hostile by farmers and ill-advised by the public.
The debate that followed provided an important opportunity for lawmakers and the public to reflect on the necessity of having farming and its related industries in our state. The conclusion was overwhelmingly supportive of agriculture.Fortunately, the Department of Agriculture is still a part of state government, continuing to provide needed services to industry and the public.
In New Jersey, a 4.8 million acre state, where in the past 60 years more than 1 million productive farmland acres have been converted to other uses, we must be attentive to the needs of our state's agriculture. Our farmers manage and are stewards of 15 percent of the state's land, while comprising just one tenth of one percent of the state's population.
The products produced on the Garden State's farms improve our environment, feed our population — both people and animals — and contribute to the quality of life for every state resident.
However, the current state environment regulatory structure places a heavy burden on New Jersey's farm families. Farmers face considerable challenges when maintaining and improving their land, which strains the viability of their business. Change in the state's regulatory approach to agriculture and its related industries needs to occur.
Some farmers report waiting more than a year to receive permission to pump water to nourish vegetable crops, on preserved farmland, from an existing well. This is one example of inconsistent and difficult-to-understand environmental regulations added to the frustrations of managing an already challenging business.
Farming, like any business, needs a state-level policy framework that is predictable and supportive to thrive. Meaningful change will send a clear and positive signal to entrepreneurs, saying that opportunities exist, and to businesses that support agriculture that the Garden State is a place to invest.
In a dramatic departure from the previous administration, Governor Chris Christie is acknowledging that in order for New Jersey to grow, business needs to flourish and thrive; including the food and agriculture industry.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who is chairing the Red Tape Review Group, has a monumental task trying to undo a complex mess of regulations that has stifled economic growth in our state.
It is good to see Senator Steve Oroho from Sussex County and Assemblyman John Burzichelli from Gloucester County as members of this Red Tape Review process, each having agriculture as a significant segment of the economy in their Legislative Districts.
Other group members, Senator Barbara Bono of Middlesex County and Assemblyman Scott Rumana of Wayne should remember when agriculture played a more prominent role in their communities.
Now is the time for farmers to emerge from a protective ‘hunker down' mode, hoping for no more harm to come to their industry, and embrace the challenge to strengthen the state's regulatory framework supporting their business.
Building on the successful farmland preservation initiatives — work that New Jersey citizens have consistently supported — now is the time to update and improve regulation.
This effort should focus on keeping farm enterprises profitable while assisting farmers in managing the state's agricultural working landscape.
For several years, farmers, by adopting a resolution at their annual convention, have requested the "New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to adopt an overall policy direction that would allow for a permit-by-rule procedure for agricultural operations." By recognizing a Farm Conservation Plan in its regulation, the Department can reward good stewardship and give farmers the ability to implement conservation activities without prior approval from its environmental regulators.
Farm Conservation Plans developed with experts from United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service are comprehensive and thorough, focusing on improving soil health and water quality. These plans alsofor public incentives to implement conservation practices.
Allowing for innovative conservation, while protecting and improving the environment benefits everyone.
The Red Tape Review Group will hear plenty of stories that have contributed to the frustrating and inflexible business climate in our state. For farmers, now is the time to influence this group's work. Hopefully, this will lead to a positive shift in the way the state regulates agriculture. Let's keep our tractors working on the farm and cut cumbersome red tape.
Charles Kuperus, a Sussex Borough farmer, served as New Jersey's Secretary of Agriculture from 2001-2008.