NJ takes steps to keep farmland in the family

Package of bills ensures steady funding for state’s efforts to preserve its farmland.

Frenchtown farmer Ryan Kocsis raises hay. He’s worked the fields since his teens, but always on leased land.

“I started out when I was 12-years-old. I bought a tractor and baler. Started making horse hay and straw,” he said.

Digging up $1.7 million to actually buy a 160-acre spread felt utterly out of reach for Ryan and his wife, Kim.

“We were working ourselves to the bone, just trying to be able to afford a place like this,” he said.

They worried a developer might buy the acres. But last year, the Kocsis family applied and qualified for New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program. Inspectors checked them out and approved $1.1 million to help buy the farm and place it under ironclad deed restrictions: the Perpetual Harvest Farm will perpetually remain a farm.

“It made our dreams come true,” remembered Kocsis. “I cry all the time, thinking about how lucky we were to be able to afford this place.”

“We need open space,” proclaimed Asm. Eric Houghtaling, “We don’t need development all over the place. Once a farmer sells his property to a developer, it’s going to be developed.”

That’s why Assemblyman Houghtaling helped sponsor a package of bills just signed by Gov. Christie that dedicates more than $60 million, including a portion of the New Jersey’s corporate income tax, to support the state’s Farmland Preservation program. Since its passage in 1983, New Jersey has preserved 2,500 farms, protecting more than 226,000 acres.

“New Jersey farmland was under constant pressure. And, in some places in the state, it still is,” said Susan Payne, head of New Jersey’s Agriculture Development Committee. “I mean, New Jersey’s been the home of sprawl, right? Large scale, large lot development into the farmland. And that’s consumed agricultural land at an alarming rate.”

Payne says, as the economy ramps up, so does the push to develop. A new, rolling subdivision occupies acreage where Ryan Kocsis says, he used to mow hay as a teenager. But many farms have also evolved to compete by selling locally-sourced meats, dairy and produce through farmers markets, co-ops and community-supported agriculture.

“You have a tremendous market, a retail market, here of consumers. And the consumers are supportive of farmers and farming and there’s a real hunger for locally-grown produce,” said Payne.

“We have grass fed beef, pastured pork, pastured poultry and pastured eggs,” said Elise Haring, who works on a 53-acre, fourth-generation farm, the first one ever protected under New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program. She says it’s the only way they’ve kept it going.

Reporter: “Can you imagine doing anything else?”

Haring: “Absolutely not. I love it. I wake up every day, knowing what my job is. Some days are more exciting than others, but for the most part it’s the bestsellers life for us and our children.”

Ryan and Kim Hocksis hope their kids keep the tradition going, too. The Kocsis Perpetual Harvest Farm lies next to a farm owned by Ryan’s dad. Farmland Preservation will keep both in the family.

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