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INDUSTRY VIEWPOINT: Preserving the garden in the Garden State

As I travel the country representing the New Jersey Farm Bureau and New Jersey's farmers, I'm proud to tell people I'm from the great Garden State of New Jersey. And I too often get jokes about the turnpike and questions about what we grow here amidst our cities and shopping malls.

While it's true that New Jersey is smack-dab between New York and Philadelphia, peppered with suburbs, we also have assets nothing short of remarkable: amazing garden oases, the very reason we are called the Garden State.

As urbanized as we are, New Jersey still has about 1 million acres of land actively devoted to agricultural, horticultural or forestry production. Fruits, vegetables, nursery crops, aquaculture, dairy farms, sod farms and horse pastures are just a few assets we boast of within our multi-billion dollar industry.

So why would Gov. Jon Corzine toss away the state's cabinet-level advocate for this major industry?

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture and its secretary are a vital component of the support system our farmers need. The cost of that support represents the tiniest fraction of the state's total budget: just 0.028 percent, or $9.2 million out of $33 billion).

Do we need to cut state spending? Yes. And agriculture should take its fair share, like every other state agency. However, after eliminating the agriculture department and moving its functions to other agencies, the governor proposes an 18 percent slash in spending for those agriculture programs that would remain. So when the essential functions are moved, they'll be under-funded.

The saddest part of this plan is that closing the NJDA will demoralize the agricultural industry but save the state budget very little money. After all essential functions are reassigned, this could mean a savings of just a few hundred thousand dollars. Are such savings really worth pulling the rug out from under an industry that contributes billions of dollars to the state's economy and jeopardizing the quality of programs that benefit all the citizens of New Jersey?

Without a department of agriculture, what department will oversee the hugely popular Jersey Fresh program that promotes locally grown produce and serves as a model for other states? Its current budget is $800,000. The governor proposes moving the program to another agency and slashing that budget in half.

Without a department of agriculture, what department will oversee the vital Blueberry Certification program that ensures New Jersey's nationally renowned blueberries can be shipped across the Canadian border? New Jersey is ranked No. 2 nationally in blueberry production. The market for those berries is not just our own backyard but international as well.

Without a department of agriculture, what department will administer food- safety programs? The New Jersey Department of Agriculture was awarded an $85,000 Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide education and training for growers to meet the demands of emerging trends in food safety. That $85,000 grant is just a small part of the $1.5 million in FSMIP funding that New Jersey will lose without a department of agriculture.

In the pending farm bill, specialty crops grants are slated to increase to their highest levels ever, with base grants to each state rising to $1 million. Statutory language limits the grants to those states with departments of agriculture. So without our NJDA, our specialty crop farmers will lose $1 million and never see assistance they deserve from the farm bill.

Through the State Agriculture Development Committee, chaired by the agriculture secretary, New Jersey has invested over $1 billion to permanently preserve more than 164,000 acres of farmland. What happens to this program? Who takes responsibility for preserving farmland and a farmer's right to farm if not our state's top advocate for the industry? Will another agency make farmland preservation a priority? Or will this once strong, proud program be forgotten?

Farmers are already skeptical about the erosion of state support for their industry. Our producers know that farming on the urban fringe can be tough, but have chosen to embrace that challenge and welcome the benefits of working and living so close to consumers. We've taken the good with the bad here. But losing the department of agriculture and witnessing its secretary's position abolished? We just don't see any good in that.

Many of us already feel disheartened by challenges here: increasingly high property taxes, growing competition for land, and regulations that greatly diminish our property values. We've always felt the pressures, but the proposed budget cuts leave us feeling not just pressured but abandoned.

I farm in New Jersey. This is a business I want and plan to continue. I also want to continue telling my colleagues around the nation how proud I am to be a New Jersey farmer. I urge everyone to tell Gov. Corzine and our legislature that we need their support. We need to save the Garden State and keep the department of agriculture.

(Richard Nieuwenhuis is president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau)