|Annual Report 1998|
Topping a long list of accomplishments this year were legislative changes critical to the industry's viability. Chief among these was the enactment of amendments to the state's Right to Farm Act of 1983 which culminated the State Board of Agriculture's two-year effort to strengthen the legal protections afforded by the law to responsible farm operations.
As she signed the changes into law against a backdrop of lush southern New Jersey farmland, Governor Christie Whitman re-emphasized her commitment to maintaining agriculture as a viable industry in New Jersey.
The amended Right to Farm Act protects responsible farmers who follow federal and state laws and adhere to normal agricultural management practices which do not pose a direct threat to public health and safety. In addition, the revised Act more specifically defines those operations which constitute commercial farms and farm markets and are entitled to right-to-farm protection.
The amendments also establish a conflict resolution process that begins with the county agriculture development board, a mediation process that is expected to save both farmers and municipalities litigation time and expense while encouraging farmers and their neighbors to resolve conflicts more congenially.
Other key legislative measures enacted this year to aid agricultural producers placed a stable funding measure for farmland preservation and open space acquisition on the November 1998 ballot; paved the way for New Jersey's entry into the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact once the State of New York became a member; authorized the department to charge livestock owners for animal health testing services; established the rights of operators of equestrian facilities and the responsibilities of participants in equestrian activities; exempted personal property used directly and primarily on farms from the Sales and Use Tax Act; provided limited civil liability immunity to farmers for pick-your-own operations; and streamlined, simplified and extended the deadline for underground storage tank removal on farms.
The state's Farmland Preservation Program (FPP) broke all records this fiscal year, preserving more than 10,000 acres. By year's end, 47,301 acres had been permanently preserved.
Two donations of development easements were included in this total. The first donation, valued at an estimated $350,000, covered a 47- acre horse, sheep and hay farm in Ringoes, Hunterdon County. The second donation in Plainsboro, Middlesex County, involved the 200-acre Walker-Gordon farm, a large working farm with a colorful agricultural history. The donation, arranged by the Middlesex County Agriculture Development Board in cooperation with Plainsboro officials, had an estimated value of over $1 million.
For the second year, the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC), which oversees the FPP, was awarded a USDA grant for use in the purchase of development easements. The $200,000 grant helped the SADC to purchase the 561-acre River Walk Farm in Pohatcong, Warren County. The grant represented 10 percent of the total of only $2 million available nationwide under the Farmland Protection Program created under the federal 1996 Farm Bill.
New Jersey's application received the highest ranking of any tract proposed for inclusion in the program in the Eastern Region because of the farm's tremendous ecological and economic value to the state. The property is located in an area which the American Farmland Trust calls "the second most threatened agricultural area in the United States" and has been under extreme development pressure since the 1980s.
The SADC also debuted a new program, Farm Link, aimed at farmers who want to expand their farms or prospective farmers who want to start farming. Farm Link will bring farmland buyers and sellers together and track both unrestricted farmland and deed-restricted farmland enrolled in the FPP. New Jersey's Farm Link program is an active member of the National Family Farm/Ranch Transition Network, a national clearinghouse for agricultural land-link programs.
Citing the progress of the FPP as the main agricultural accomplishment of her first term in office, Governor Christie Whitman began her second term with a pledge to establish a stable funding mechanism for the acquisition of one million acres of open space in the coming decade, about half of which she expects to be farmland.
Among the most serious challenges facing NJDA this year was maintaining the viability of the state's dairy industry in the face of rapidly falling prices to farmers and potentially chaotic changes in federal pricing policies.
One key to strengthening the economic situation of New Jersey's dairy farmers could be state membership in the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact created by the 1996 Farm Bill. The Compact minimizes the volatility of the prices paid to dairy farmers, creating a stabilized price related to the price of production. However, New Jersey's entry into the Compact would be contingent on a state contiguous to the six original Compact states, in this case, New York, entering the organization, and would require Congressional approval.
Following hearings held by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, a bill to expedite New Jersey's Compact entry was passed and signed by Governor Whitman.
Based on the critical conditions facing the industry through the winter, NJDA responded to requests for emergency price relief from the New Jersey Farm Bureau and three dairy cooperatives, Land O'Lakes, Dairylea and Milk Marketing, Inc., by holding a public hearing in November concerning milk producer prices for Class 1 (beverage) milk in the state. More than 20 individuals offered testimony concerning Class 1 milk prices and their effect on both the dairy farmer and the consumer. Several of those who testified submitted financial records comparing recent prices and production expenses to the same figures over the past four decades. In each case, production costs had risen significantly while producer prices had remained virtually the same.
Following a review of the record, NJDA issued a finding of fact and an emergency order setting a six-month minimum price of $16.89 per hundredweight for Class 1 milk produced by New Jersey dairy farmers.
In an action with implications for many of New Jersey's farmers, the Superior Court Appellate Division upheld the constitutionality of the "single use" facility exemption under the Farmland Assessment Act in VanWingerden vs. Lafayette Township, reversing a Tax Court decision holding the statute unconstitutional.
The amendment in question provided for an exemption from real property taxes for "single use" facilities which are designed or constructed so as to be readily dismantled and of a type which could be marketed or sold separately from the farmland and buildings. Excluded from the exemption were structures that enclosed space within their walls or were used for housing, shelter, or working office or sales space, whether or not removable.
The Tax Court ruled that the greenhouse was real property and, hence, the exemption violated the uniformity clause of the state constitution, which requires all real property to be taxed on the same basis. The Appellate Division felt that the statute was constitutional since it constituted a valid classification of personal property by the Legislature. The decision is a significant one for the state's agriculture industry since it provides for needed tax relief for farmers who have readily disassembled greenhouses, grain bins, manure-handling equipment, silos, impoundments, and other such property.
This year, the first class of participants graduated from the two- year New Jersey Agricultural Leadership Development Program. The program grew out of a partnership among the state's four major agricultural organizations, the New Jersey Agricultural Society, the State Board of Agriculture with NJDA, the New Jersey Farm Bureau and Cook College/Rutgers. Several states that want to start a similar program are looking at New Jersey's as their model.
The severe and extended drought that hit New Jersey from June through October 1997 led Governor Whitman to request a comprehensive Secretarial Disaster Designation from the USDA to cover crop losses suffered by farmers in Cape May, Cumberland and Monmouth Counties. The request was approved, making low-interest loans available to affected growers.
In March, with forecasts of extremely cold temperatures which could seriously affect fruit crops in bloom or near bloom around the state, the department received authorization from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for open burning of clean wood to help fruit farmers protect their crops. By the end of the growing season, the cold weather seemed to have most seriously affected the peach crop with major shippers reporting a 20 percent drop in the harvest due to the heavy spring frost.
The Division of Travel & Tourism, in cooperation with Prosperity New Jersey, updated the State Tourism Master Plan in FY98. The first update in 17 years, this Master Plan will serve as a blueprint to chart the development and promotion of tourism over the next decade. The document will include rural tourism destinations such as farm markets, pick-your-own farms, wineries, agricultural and seafood festivals, county fairs and equine events among the family-oriented tourism opportunities available in the Garden State.
The tremendously successful "New Jersey Farmers Against Hunger" effort, a food rescue and recovery program, entered its second year. Throughout the growing season, hundreds of community volunteers moved through fields and orchards, picking up good quality produce that had some small cosmetic flaw, was too large or too small to be sold through usual retail or wholesale channels or was too ripe to withstand the shipping process. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce gleaned from farms or donated by farmers and wholesale produce distributors was taken to Atlantic, Burlington, Camden and Mercer County churches, shelters and hunger relief organizations which, in turn, distributed the produce to needy families or individuals or used it to enrich the menus of food pantries and soup kitchens.
The annual tour for legislators, focusing this year on Monmouth County, was attended by 40 legislators and legislative representatives. The tour highlighted wholesale and retail nurseries, aquaculture, fruit production and farm market sales, niche marketing and the equine industry. The tour was sponsored by NJDA in cooperation with the New Jersey Agricultural Society, the Monmouth County Board of Agriculture and the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders.
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