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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 07/11/05        NJBiz online

Fun, Farms and Good Public Policy

by Ingrid Reed

Summer in New Jersey means going to the shore. While public policy may not be the first thing you think about while lying on the beach or strolling along the boardwalk, it nonetheless produces both fun for visitors and profits for businesses. From improving the flow of traffic on the Garden State Parkway to preventing sewage from washing into the ocean, public policy decisions are crucial to successful vacations.

Summer in New Jersey also means growing things. We are the Garden State, but my guess is that if you asked a family what it was doing this summer, the immediate response would be "going to the shore." Only after prompting would family members say, "going to a farmer's market," or "picking strawberries or blueberries." Agriculture is so successful in the state today that large chunks of it fit into the tourism and fun category.

Public policy decisions have helped make agriculture a dynamic sector that adds more than $850 million a year to the state's gross product. Preservation of farmland and special farmland assessments seem to be paying off.

The number of farms is increasing in New Jersey after 50 years of decline. According to figures collected by the state Department of Agriculture, the last 15 years have seen the addition of about 100 farms a year even as the number of farms has declined nationwide.The average size of a New Jersey farm is about 83 acres, compared with the U.S. average of about 440 acres per farm.

Something else is going on in our state's agricultural sector: A new generation of farmers is bringing creative ideas and entrepreneurial energy to an old industry.

I was recently privileged to applaud 22 of these farmers when I addressed the fifth class of the state Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Leaders program, which acquaints farmers with public policy issues. I spoke at an event celebrating the end of their two-year program and the completion of 10 years of the leadership initiative.

I had first met the farmers last year when they came to Trenton for two days to learn about state government and meet their legislators. In the ensuing year they polished their speaking skills and learned about economic development in their state, which has the highest percentage of developed land in the country. They also traveled to Spain for a first-hand understanding of the global market and the role the European Union plays in shaping agricultural policies in countries with which U.S. farmers compete.

These farners were an astonishingly diverse group that reflected New Jersey's dynamic agricultural economy. One represented the third generation to run a prestigious landscape nursery in Middlesex County. Another was in the early stages of a new oyster-raising business near Cape May. Two women were managers of educational programs and retail operations at Terhune Orchards in Mercer County. Several farmers were providing products to some of the best-known restaurants in New Jersey and New York City. Others were raising sheep, cows, rabbits and horses. Still others were in businesses related to farming and to research activities at Rutgers University.

All recognized that they had both the opportunity and the obligation to help shape the future of the state in ways that were broader than their own professions. Like many New Jerseyans, they worried about property taxes and were concerned about government corruption. But I suspect they will make the most of the summer and wait until after Labor Day to take politics and the upcoming election seriously.

I am also sure that they would appreciate your stopping at a farm stand on your way to the shore, and buying Jersey Fresh produce at the supermarket for your picnics. These agricultural leaders would be the first to tell you that in a single year the state's annual $1.16 million Jersey Fresh campaign produces more than $60 million of farm revenue. Just another example of public policy and public funds put to good use.