Agriculture has always been a keystone of the state’s economy; if no longer dominant in dollars, it certainly still plays a significant role in the Garden State’s image. The Department of Agriculture’s transition report underscores that fact, with its advisory committee hoping to enhance New Jersey’s public image by supporting agritourism efforts and bringing back the sidelined and underfunded Jersey Fresh program.
The new Murphy administration appointed a transition committee for each of the state’s cabinet-level departments, seeking advice and information on what the departments’ stakeholders — experts, analysts, business leaders, officials of non-profits, etc. — view as priorities for the administration. The report on agriculture was among a number that were released publicly last week: These are just advisory reports — Murphy has no obligation to follow their advice.
Make New Jersey Fresh again
One of the recurring themes throughout the report is the need for strong state branding — starting with the Jersey Fresh program.
The report takes former governors to task for drastic funding cuts over the last decade that have reduced the marketing program’s budget from a peak of $1 million down to $50,000, an amount they say barely covers the cost of the inspection and grading efforts.
The advisory committee calls for Murphy not only to revive the program, but also to permit farmers to sell home-baked goods, farm beer and cider, and industrial hemp. As it stands, New Jersey is the only state where selling home-baked goods is prevented by law.
Another rebranding effort would focus on the 2.25 million acres of wineries in the southern counties of Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean, Monmouth and Salem which the report targets as a growing tourist space.
The report calls for the creation of road signs and other promotional materials dubbing that region the “Coastal Plains Wine Corridor” which they believe could become the “Napa Valley of the East.” The advisory committee recommends putting the Economic Development Authority and Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station program (NJAES) in charge of this effort, giving interested wineries access to EDA loans for winery expansion, vineyard establishment, and necessary equipment.
The report also emphasizes the need to get young people interested in farming again. According to the report, New Jersey farms are facing a decline, with the average age of a New Jersey farmer at 60. What’s more, because the state resources set aside to preserve farmland come with the exception that the land should remain in farming, that creates a need for a new generation of farmers.
To combat this issue, the advisory committee recommends pouring more resources and budgetary support into the research efforts at the NJAES, which is the main source of technical support for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural professionals in the state. The report also seeks to get young people involved though Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4H, and vocational tech programs.
The report also recommends making changes to encourage urban, niche, and beginner farmers by extending tax benefits to farms under five acres and removing barriers to urban farming such as the department of health regulation that prohibits small farms from accepting food stamp benefits like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and WIC.
The issue of food deserts in some New Jersey cities is also targeted in the report, which advises directing the department of agriculture to work with education programs and establish EDA loan programs to get beginner farmers the equipment and information they need to start urban farms.
According to the report, the number one priority for the Murphy team should be immediately restoring the “heat and eat” benefits that would make it easier for those participating in the SNAP program, which is overseen by the federal Department of Agriculture, to also receive help paying heating bills. While in office, Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly vetoed budget language that would have restored the program and according to recent Benefits Data Trust research, some 160,000 Garden State residents have seen their SNAP benefits dip by about $90 a month due to Christie’s actions.
It also recommends streamlining food insecurity programs like SNAP, WIC, school breakfast and lunch, adult-care food programs and food assistance for disaster relief into two departments (Agriculture, and either Human Services or Health) and making them easier to apply to.
Deer and insects
The report also touches on some issues that are more difficult to categorize like deer-hunting permit changes and funding for an insect laboratory.
Deer in the state are largely overpopulated and have been negatively impacting farmers by contributing to annual crop losses of up to 40 percent, according to the report. In response, the committee recommends a “strategic deer management plan” that would “develop target population numbers for a sustainable herd” — all of which really means more deer hunting. Some of the proposed regulations include allowing bow hunting during summer months and creating an all-season, all-zone, “Earn-A-Buck” program similar to ones in states like Indiana and Virginia where more does and antlerless deer can be taken per buck until the population “has reached a scientifically acceptable level.” This would be a change from the current law which restricts doe counts in some zones and in some seasons unless a hunter is in possession of an unlimited doe tag.
The committee also supports repairing and funding the Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Rearing Laboratory, a facility constructed in the mid 1980’s for research related to raising and releasing insects like weevils and beetles to control invasive species in New Jersey.