New Jersey is not only the nation’s most densely populated state, but likely the most diverse. Name any nationality or ethnic group, and chances are this state we’re in has an established community.
Density and diversity are two big reasons Ben Spinelli is optimistic about the future of farming in the Garden State.
“Our markets are like nowhere else in the world,” said Spinelli, a consultant on agricultural issues, at the New Jersey Land Conservation Conference in Trenton on March 18. “There are opportunities for farmers here like no place else.”
The state Department of Agriculture, which just turned 100 years old, shares that positive outlook. “Amazingly, in the most densely populated state in the nation, we have this ability to produce,” said Agriculture Secretary Doug Fisher.
The Garden State is home to 9,100 farms encompassing 720,000 acres and generating over $1 billion in sales annually. We rank in the national top 10 in the production of cranberries, bell peppers, spinach, peaches, blueberries, cucumbers, snap beans, squash, cabbage, and tomatoes. Over 200,000 acres of farmland have been permanently preserved to date.
Spinelli says many New Jerseyans think of farmland preservation as primarily an open space program because it keeps the land open. Actually, he said, it’s an economic program to ensure that sufficient land is available for food production — and that farmers can keep farming.
“You can save the farmland, but if you can’t save the farmer, what’s the point?” he asked.
One way to keep farming viable is to find niche markets. For example, Spinelli described meeting a Bangladeshi man whose dream is to grow vegetables found in his native land to sell to expat Bangladeshis longing for a taste of home.
Demand exists for the native vegetables and fruits of many other countries, and a pathway to success for farmers will be to discover and supply those markets.
Another emerging market, according to Spinelli, are local breweries and distilleries. “It’s a hell of a market,” he commented. Other markets for New Jersey farmers include restaurants specializing in “local” foods, and families who simply want to know where their food is coming from.
Spinelli pointed to a photo of a ripe tomato. “Do you want it to come from 3,000 miles away, or do you want it to come from one mile away?” he asked. The state’s density can be a plus to farmers, because “farm to table” journeys are short.
Challenges to New Jersey farmers, said Spinelli, include access to capital, access to sufficient land, and finding distribution networks for farm products.
But with creative solutions — such as converting hayfields and other non-food growing farmland to vegetable and fruit production, and creating new distribution networks — the Garden State is poised enter a “golden age” of farming. “This is going to be looked on as the dawn of a new era,” predicted Spinelli.
Agriculture Secretary Fisher agrees. “I see an enormously bright future for agriculture in this state. It is changing and evolving, and we’re finding new production methods and crops,” he said.
A new agricultural study may help. Spinelli and his partner, Frank Pinto, are conducting a first-of-its-kind study on the economics of agriculture in New Jersey, using Monmouth County for their testing ground.
The “Grown in Monmouth” initiative will investigate current farming activities in the county, identify unique and emerging agricultural trends, assess the potential for new and innovative agricultural businesses and markets, and develop marketing strategies.
Results from Monmouth County will be applied to agriculture throughout he state. Although each county has its own geography, growing season and demographics, what they all have in common is a need to keep agriculture a profitable enterprise by finding ways for farmers to succeed.
For more information, go to www.growninmonmouth.com, www.nj.gov/agriculture, or www.njconservation.org.
Michele Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.