New Jersey has invested more to preserve its agricultural land base than any state in the nation, resulting in more than one out of every three acres of farmland being enrolled in the state’s Farmland Preservation Program.
The potential for return on this investment can be fully realized only if there are enough qualified and dedicated farmers to cultivate and care for the State’s farmland.
According to American Farmland Trust (AFT), more than 40 percent of America’s agricultural land is owned by people aged 65 and older and will be in transition within the next 15 years, putting both family farmers and the land they steward at risk. AFT estimates that 371 million acres of farmland and ranchland could be in transition due to the age of farmland owners. Meanwhile, many would-be farmers can’t afford to enter the field.
New Jersey is addressing the issue as the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) is establishing a “Next Generation Farmers” program to support new and beginning famers in accessing land, securing the technical training, and establishing new, viable farming enterprises.
“We will be hiring two new staff members to research, design, develop, and implement a comprehensive system to identify, train, equip and support the next generation of New Jersey farmers in coordination with existing programs where possible, “ SADC Executive Director Susan Payne said.
New Jersey’s agricultural operations are comprised almost entirely of family farms with those relations being the primary pathway for young farmers to gain access to land. Farmers generally were either raised in a farm family or married into one—and farmland was passed down from one generation to the next. In New Jersey and across the nation, children of farm families have increasingly chosen to leave the farm and pursue other vocations, creating a void in what historically has been the seamless transition of farm operations to the next generation.
Many people who want to become farmers, both younger ones beginning, and others starting second careers, don’t have access to the land needed to start a new farming business. While would-be farms are typically located in rural areas, an increasing number of people are interested in producing food in suburban and urban environments to reach underserved populations.
“We want to identify changes in state and federal policy, rules, and legislation to achieve the goals of a next-generation farmer program in collaboration with existing stakeholders,” Payne said. “These include American Farmland Trust, New Jersey-based land trusts, Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, New Jersey Farm Bureau, urban agriculture gardens and initiatives, the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New Jersey, the New Jersey Department of Labor, and county and local partners in the development and implementation of the program. We want to reach a diverse range of potential participants, including women-owned business interests, and underserved communities.”
There may also be opportunities for veterans to seek careers in agriculture.
“The SADC wants to collaborate with Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst to allow U.S. veterans to pursue agriculture as their next career and create an effective mentoring program between retiring and new and prospective farmers,” New Jersey Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary Joe Atchison III said.
The new Next Generation Farmer Senior and Assistant Coordinator positions are posted and open for applications until January 21, on the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s website at nj.gov/agriculture/about/admin/employment