Profile: Someone to Speak up for the Garden State’s Farms and Farmers
As executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Peter J. Furey is up to his elbows in agriculture
Who: Peter J. Furey
Family: Married with three adult children
What he does: Executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau
How he got there: Furey is a Jersey boy, born and raised in Haddonfield. He spent the first two years of college at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., then transferred to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, where he earned a bachelor's degree in economics.
After graduating and returning to New Jersey, Furey worked as an Ocean County planner and then as assistant to the county administrator. He spent a year as deputy director of the Pinelands Environmental Council, which was the original state planning agency for the region, around the time the federal government established the Pinelands National Reserve.
Furey then worked in the state Department of Agriculture, where he developed the legislation creating two of the state's most important farming policies: farmland preservation and right-to-farm. His last two jobs led to his joining the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
"I came to Farm Bureau in 1982, after finishing the project report that led to the state legislation creating the farmland preservation program and also with the recommendation of several leading Pinelands farmers," he said.
What he does there: In his long tenure -- and Furey said he has no plans for retirement anytime soon -- he has worked with legislators and state officials on bills affecting farmers and agriculture in the Garden State. While the farmland-assessment program predated his tenure there, the other most significant laws were enacted in the early 1980s to try to retain the state's agriculture and improve its viability through the Right to Farm and Farmland Preservation Program.
More recently, NJFB worked on shaping the legislation that updated the farmland assessment qualifications for the first time in a half century and pushed for public passage of open-space bond issues. The bureau continues to represent farmers, host conferences, and act as the primary spokesman for agricultural interests in the state. And as a member of the American Farm Bureau, NJFB is also keenly interested in federal legislation that would affect farm workers.
What's challenging about the job: The Farm Bureau's membership of about 10,700 has remained stable despite the continual loss of farmland in New Jersey. Those 1980s laws and the purchase of farms or the development rights of farms has helped stem, but not stop, those losses. The number of New Jersey farms, 9,100, has been declining for at least the past two decades and the number of farm acres, 720,000, is at its lowest since at least 1960, according to the most recent state Department of Agriculture annual report.
It is not easy being a farmer in one of the most expensive states in the nation.
“I think the average farmer in New Jersey is slightly worse off than 10 years ago if only for the reality of heightened competition," Furey said. "Certainly, the dollar value of gross farm income statewide has increased, which is one measure of vitality. But net income is a different question. That is where the inexorable costs increases (labor, taxes, cost of regulation, inputs to production) come to bear. Farming is a high-risk, extremely competitive business. There are many producers available to take one’s niche or market share, and wholesale buyers have brutal leverage in setting prices for perishable commodities."
What is the biggest issue facing farmers: Recognizing that New Jersey farmers are "hardly a uniform group," with some very small doing most of the work on their own and others with hundreds of acres and dozens of employees, Furey said the cost and availability of seasonal labor is the greatest struggle overall for the state's farmers.
"Producing and shipping large volumes of farm-grown commodities requires substantial labor inputs," he said, adding that labor can total as much as 45 percent of a farm's expenses.
"Affluent, suburban lifestyle populations ... are not interested in field work and packing-house work, the key component to many farms. Mechanization is a limited alternative."
The solution, Furey said, is federal immigration reform that includes "an updated, consensus-supported guest-worker program."
What is his top priority: Furey said it is critical to maintain the state's "pro-agriculture policies" that have been adopted over many years in support of farming. These include a favorable property assessment for legitimate farms, access to water for crop irrigation, a farmland-preservation program that is funded, "reasonable" regulations, and support for Rutgers University's Cooperative Extension Service and the Agricultural Experiment Station, which conduct research and help both farmers and gardeners throughout the state.
What he thinks the future will hold: It will all depend on how the state looks at and treats farmers. "A decade from now, farm viability will be as it is now, a function of a combination of factors: market demand, cost structure, tolerance for risk-taking by the producer, ag business-friendly features of New Jersey government, and personal outlook by the producer," Furey said.
"There’s a positive scenario that shows a further appreciation for locally-grown food, solid support for farming as a provider of precious open space in a metropolitan region, product innovations with crops and livestock to allow bio-based industries as an alternative to fossil fuel-based industries."
But that depends greatly on continuing support from the government and community.
"On the other hand, state and local policies could abandon the longstanding pro-farming tradition in New Jersey and effectively discourage the continuation of the industry as we know it today, resulting in a much smaller version of the current industry," he added. "The outcome will be a response to outside forces, which is why we at Farm Bureau do our work of trying to shape those forces. "
How he is never far from farming: Even in his spare time, Furey visits farms both here and in other states. "We all have evolved from an agrarian past," he said, "and it is fascinating to me as a hobby to travel and see the roots of modern urban society arising from that agrarian past both here and throughout the U.S."