(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2005.)
What’s a better investment: $3 million to preserve an 11-acre peach farm in highly developed Bergen County or $3 million to preserve hundreds of acres in Cumberland or Salem counties?
Farmer Roger Ruske has been asking that question for years. He and his son, Chris, run Cumberland Nurseries on 275 acres straddling the Fairfield-Millville border. Last year, they looked into selling the nursery’s development rights through the state’s farmland-preservation program. For them, deciding against it was a no-brainer.
“The prices down here just aren’t enough to warrant the restrictions,” Chris Ruske said. “The property values down here have skyrocketed, and the program hasn’t kept up.”
For years, local farmers have warned about an impending development boom in Cumberland County. This past year, it finally hit. Plans for thousands of houses sit on the books in Vineland, Upper Deerfield, Hopewell and Millville. Land in Vineland and Millville where farmers rejected state farmland-preservation money as too cheap now hosts houses instead of crops. A half-dozen Vineland farmers turned away from the program this year for the same reason.
Property values are skyrocketing. One local appraiser said Cumberland County land is selling for $20,000 per acre, with some properties in Hopewell and Vineland going for more.
Many local farmers aren’t asking for preservation payments that equal those levels. They’re just asking for a little bit more than is currently offered. From 1995 through 2003, Cumberland and Salem farms typically brought between $1,500 and $2,000 per acre in preservation payments. Since then, they have jumped to $5,000 and $6,000, respectively.
“They are paying millions and millions of dollars in Bergen County for a couple of acres, and here they won’t pay enough to get farmers interested,” Cumberland County planner Matt Pisarski said.
State officials have heard this complaint before, but that was before many of these development plans materialized in this rural region.
Susan Craft, director of the State Agriculture Development Committee, acknowledges flaws in the system. Currently, the state bases how much is paid for preserved farmland on property appraisals alone, and that means northern New Jersey properties with higher property values bring more money for preservation. The formula takes the difference between a property’s development value and its value as strictly a farm, then pays the difference for preservation. It doesn’t take into account a farm’s productivity or whether it’s surrounded by other farms or suburban developments.
“No, I don’t think it’s ideal,” Craft said of the formula. “I think it would be a good idea for the state to maximize the preservation of rural areas while they’re still rural.”
The SADC serves an entire state, however, not just one region. Money from northern New Jersey funds the program, too, and it needs to be represented, Craft said.
But $3 million for Pete Demarest’s 11-acre peach farm in Bergen County last year was the bomb dropped on local farmers. Few farmers begrudge him the deal. It doesn’t mean they think it was smart.
“They could buy half of Cumberland County for that,” said Joe Hancock, a Greenwich organic farmer and retired plant pathologist. “Something like that, that’s a waste of money. They should be buying farmland in a more systematic fashion. They should buy land in more contiguous areas where there’s good farmland.”
Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew introduced a bill earlier this year that would add additional factors to the preservation formula, specifically the value of a farm’s agricultural production and the presence of surrounding contiguous farmland. It’s moving slowly through the bureaucracy, but it doesn’t mean the statewide political will to act will exist.
Other agricultural regions, such as Lancaster County, Pa., already take into account the issues Van Drew’s bill addresses.
“A preserved farm gets a higher ranking if it’s next to another farm,” Lancaster County Commissioner Dick Shellenberger said. “We want it to be blocks of contiguous land. We don’t know want it to be just a patch of open space here and there.”
Lancaster commissioners also voted last week to float a $25 million bond, 80 percent of which is to be spent on farmland preservation over the next two years. The remaining monies are to be spent restoring the county’s boroughs and cities, to make them more attractive so people don’t go looking for farmland to build homes on.
Cumberland County already dedicates about a penny per year on the tax rate to farmland preservation, but a huge bond is probably out of the question. The county has one of the state’s highest tax rates in one of its poorest counties, and government officials are struggling through employee negotiations because of what they describe as cash shortages.
To some degree, some say, the problem is being solved on its own. Farmers here are seeing what Craft saw in Burlington County. Increasing development pressures drove property values up, so preservation payments are higher. Some farmers sat back and waited until those prices got high enough, then preserved their land. But those who need the money or want to retire sell to developers before that happens.
If the last chance to preserve the region’s agricultural character hasn’t passed, Roger Ruske said, then that last chance is now.
“This is the only place that agriculture is going to survive,” Roger Ruske said. “We’ve got the wide open spaces, the people, the know-how, the water. We’re sitting on top of the Cohansey aquifer. The SADC should be willing to pay more money because it has a chance of surviving.”