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What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect New Jersey’s farmland from the disruptions of development?

American Farmland Trust’s new report demonstrates how converting farmland puts food security, the environment and our way of life in jeopardy.   

5/20/2020, SARATOGA SPRINGSNY — Millions of acres of America’s agricultural land were developed or converted to uses that threaten farming between 2001 and 2016, according to “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” a new report by American Farmland Trust. The report’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of policies that respond to the development threats to farmland and ranchland, showing that every state can, and must, do more to protect their irreplaceable agricultural resources 

The State of the States report shows the extent, location, and quality of each state’s agricultural land and tracks how much of it has been converted in each state using the newest data and the most cutting-edge methods. The Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard analyzes six programs and policies that are key to securing a sufficient and suitable base of agricultural land in each state and highlights states’ efforts to retain agricultural land for future generationsIt offers a breakthrough tool for accelerating state efforts to make sure farmland is available to produce food, support jobs and the economy, provide essential environmental services, and help mitigate and buffer the impacts of climate change. Agricultural lands are essential to a more resilient New Jersey that is better prepared for crises.   

Farmland is vital to this nation’s food security, yet it continues to be paved over, fragmented, or converted to poorly planned residential, commercial, energy and industrial uses. According to the report, New Jersey ranks as the third most threatened state in the lower 48 states. Between 2001 and 2016 alone, 70,862 acres of New Jersey’s irreplaceable agricultural land was lost or fragmented 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have now seen empty grocery shelves for the first times in their lives. We have seen how critically important farmers are to us, how we turn to them in crises, and how they innovate to meet demand. But they can’t do their job without farmland. 

Thanks to its long-standing commitment of investing in permanent farmland protection and other policies and programs to support its farmers, New Jersey leads the nation in its response to threats on its farmland,” said Erica Goodman, New York regional director for American Farmland TrustHowever, farmland in the state  among some of the most productive, resilient and versatile farmland in the country — continues to be at risk The state must continue to build upon its strong foundation to address the mounting threats of an aging farm population and climate change to support food security, economic prosperity, and improved environmental quality. 

The U.S. holds the world’s greatest concentration of fertile soil suited for growing food and other crops. However, only 39% the agricultural land in the lower 48 states is defined by AFT as “Nationally Significant” land, which can reliably produce abundant yields for many decades to come, if farmed sustainably. Notably, the report found that 61% of New Jersey’s farmland is considered ‘nationally significant’ for food and crop production with little environmental impact. 

Each state needs to secure a critical mass of high-quality farmland to ensure that its food system is resilient in the face of extreme disruptions. After all, what is more essential to human life and society than healthy food? We need agriculture, especially environmentally sound “regenerative” agriculture, to survive. As a nation, it will take regionally diverse and sometimes redundant systems to support the increasingly complex public demands on agriculture. All states must act to protect farmland. 

New Jersey leads the nation in its response to protect farmland, but the threat remains severe 

The report’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard shows where policy is having an impact and where more needs to be done, comparing threat to policy response.  It examines six approaches that help protect land and maintain thriving agricultural communities – PACE programs, land use planning policies to manage development, agricultural districts programs that protect and encourage commercial agriculture, property tax relief for agricultural land, state leasing programs making state-owned land available to farmers and ranchers, and FarmLink programs that connect farmers with available land. 

New Jersey was the highest ranked state in its response to threats on farmland, pursuing multiple approaches and linking them together. Most significantly, the highest ranked states linked their programs to enhance effectiveness and createdstate guidelines to ensure local actions achieve broader goals. The research also indicated a strong response was likely encouraged by visible changes in the agricultural landscape, citing that 27 percent of New Jersey’s agricultural land was lost between 1982 and 2012 

At the same time, New Jersey is the third most threatened, with almost nine percent of agricultural land converted to urban high density or low-density residential land use. The Farms Under Threat research captures this new class of land use: low-density residential, or LDR. LDR land use occurs where the average housing density is above the level where agriculture is typically viable. It includes large-lot subdivisions, open agricultural land that is adjacent to or surrounded by existing development, and areas where individual houses or housing clusters are spread out along rural roads.  

LDR land use compromises opportunities for farming and ranching, making it difficult for farmers to get into their fields or travel between fields. New residents not used to living next to agricultural operations often complain about farm equipment on roads or odors related to farming. Retailers such as grain and equipment dealers, on which farmers rely, are often pushed out. Farmers can be tempted to sell out for financial reasons, or because farming just becomes too hard in the circumstances. And lastly–but importantly–as older farmers near retirement they sell their properties, too often to non-farmers. This means that new and beginning farmers have a hard time finding and affording land, threatening the very future of agriculture. More often than not, the land prices in these areas have been driven up by the encroaching development making it impossible for new farmers to afford to buy a farm.

55 percent of the land developed or compromised in New Jersey fell into this category. LDR is not always immediately visible – an indicator or previous action — to communities and policy makers and therefore has yet to provoke a policy response. LDR in the state was 5 times more likely to be converted to urban development. 

What can New Jersey do to reduce to threat to its irreplaceable farmland? 

The report found that every state in the nation has taken some action to protect agricultural land, but all states must do more. Combined, states have permanently protected more than 3 million acres, secured more than 40 million acres with restrictive covenants and zoning, and reduced the tax burden on more than 475 million acres helping them remain viable for agriculture.  

Protect the best farmland: With the highest proportion of its farmland permanently protected, New Jersey ranked at the top, alongside Delaware, for its Purchase of Agricultural Easement Program. The report also found that 61% of New Jersey’s farmland is considered ‘nationally significant’ for food and crop production with little environmental impact. When “Nationally Significant” land is impacted by development, intensive food production is pushed to more marginal lands where input costs are higher, crop yields are lower, and soils degrade more quickly. Farmers struggle to make an adequate income and often go out of business. Local food security will depend on ensuring the most productive, resilient and versatile farmland is not lost.  

Ensure farmland is affordable for a new generation of farmersCommitted and expanded state action is an essential response to mitigate the threat to New Jersey’s best farmland and support conditions that help bring a new generation of farmers on the landNew Jersey farmland is second most expensive in the country for cost per acre. Despite proximity to urban markets, affordability is one of the primary barriers for new farmers looking to gain access to land. Policies and programs should address this mounting issue, one that impacts the future of the agricultural economy and food security in the state. 

Include farmland in state climate solutions: We know that in addition to development, farmland is under pressure from the impacts of climate change. We also know that farmers are often some of the first to feel the effects of climate change while being asked to do more to stem the tide. Well-managed farms and ranches can help cool the globe. But it’s our best land that does this most effectively. The capability of marginal land to sequester carbon is significantly lower than land with better soils. Soils that are paved over, of course, sequester none at all. Farmland must be part of the equation to address climate change, especially in a U.S. Climate Alliance state like New Jersey. 

Saving the land that sustains us is no small feat. We must work together, from the farm fields to the state capitol, to ensure a strong future for farming in New Jersey. 

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American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through our No Farms, No Food message. Since our founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.5 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally-sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families. 

About the Author
Erica Goodman

New York Regional Director

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