With more than 1,800 farms preserved in New Jersey, a steadily increasing number of "Preserved Farmland" signs dot our landscape. The signs are no doubt reassuring to those who welcome them as a promise that green farm fields will never give way to residential subdivisions. But those signs hold much more meaning that is not so readily apparent.
Our farmland influences everything from how healthy we eat and how much we pay for our food, to the kinds of activities we can enjoy with our families and the size of our property tax bills — now and just as importantly in the future. It maintains our connection to the land and helps foster a sense of community at a time when more and more people want to buy locally and feel connected to the places they call home.
New Jersey is a national leader in farmland preservation, but despite our best preservation efforts, we still have lost an average of 14,000 acres of farmland annually in recent years. When we lose farmland, we lose more than just scenic landscapes. We lose a host of benefits essential to our health and well-being, the character of the communities and our way of life, and both the economy and our individual pocketbooks.
As the Garden State, we have long enjoyed an enviable abundance of fresh, great-tasting fruits and vegetables. Over the years, we have come to understand their importance in a healthy diet. More recently, many of us have become concerned about reducing food miles — how far food travels from where it is produced to our tables — to reduce our carbon footprint or impact on the environment, and because fresh produce loses nutrients over time.
All this makes a strong case for buying our food as close to home as possible. It is not surprising, therefore, that we have seen a real demand for community farmers markets and roadside farm stands. In New Jersey, the number of community farmers markets alone has surged from 50 markets in 2004 to 131 this year, serving urban, suburban and rural communities alike.
Saving our farmland means we will be able to provide for as much of our own future food supply as possible. "Fresh" will continue to mean picked locally and available immediately instead of picked hundreds or thousands of miles away, stored and trucked until it reaches the supermarket. It will mean an ability to purchase food and other farm products at more reasonable prices because we will not have to pay for added transportation costs. And it will mean being able to maintain a high degree of confidence we have in the security of our food sources - the farms in our very own back yards.
Our farmland is integral to our way of life here in the Garden State, making possible the simple and affordable seasonal traditions we enjoy — everything from "pick-your-own" outings and educational school tours to hayrides and corn mazes. Community farmers markets not only provide us with fresh, Jersey-grown farm products but they also serve as gathering places where we can connect with neighbors and the farmers who grow our food.
For our farm families, farmland is the foundation for their very livelihoods, making possible jobs not only on the farm but in a variety of related businesses that provide the equipment and services farmers need to deliver products to consumers and that help drive local and state economies.
Our farmland also is important to our environment, helping to maintain groundwater recharge and protect habitat for wildlife.
Preserving our farmland to protect all of these benefits carries a price, but we cannot fully appreciate if it is a price worth paying unless we also understand the cost of not preserving.
New Jersey towns are all too familiar with the consequences of unwanted development. New subdivisions require a variety of local services, such as roads, sewer and water, police and fire, and schools, all of which add to local property taxes. Studies by the American Farmland Trust have shown that for every dollar residential development pays in taxes, it requires on average $1.19 in services. In contrast, farmland requires an average of only 37 cents in services for every dollar it pays in taxes.
By preserving farmland, we keep tax-paying farmland on the local tax rolls, typically generating far more in tax revenues than it requires in public services. Furthermore, farmland preservation is a one-time investment, with no public costs to maintain, insure or improve the land. All this serves to help stabilize local property taxes.
With approximately a quarter of our remaining agricultural land base protected, we have made a great deal of progress in farmland preservation to date. But with three-quarters of our farmland unprotected, it is clear we still have a great deal to lose and much work yet to do.
On November 3rd, voters will be asked to approve Public Question #1 — the Green Acres, Water Supply and Floodplain Protection, and Farmland and Historic Preservation Bond Act of 2009. If passed, the Act would authorize new funding that would enable New Jersey to continue preserving farmland, as well as purchase open space for recreation or conservation; fund park improvements; preserve historic properties; and purchase as open space properties prone to flooding.
This Election Day, be sure to vote and make your voice heard on this important question that has the potential to leave a lasting mark on the landscape, character and agriculture of the Garden State for generations to come.
Douglas H. Fisher is Secretary of Agriculture for New Jersey and Chair of the State Agriculture Development Committee, which administers the state Farmland Preservation Program.