NJ: Agricultural Smart Growth

One returning face in the incoming NJ Governor's cabinet is Agricultural Secretary Charlie Kuperus, a Republican who has led a bipartisan effort making New Jersey the first state in the nation to develop an agricultural Smart Growth Plan, which has helped the state preserve 668 farms and 53,150 acres since 2002. People usually think of transit and other urban issues when thinking about growth management, but the flipside of smarter urban growth is helping existing agriculture make farming open lands more sustainable. And New Jersey's Agricultural Smart Growth Plan (a PDF) lays out principles and programs that every state facing urban pressure on agricultural areas should be considering. A few areas outlined:
  • Farmland Preservation: "Farmland preservation, the foundation of the Agricultural Smart Growth Plan, is an important investment in our economy, our farming heritage and the overall quality of life for each and every New Jerseyan for generations to come." New Jersey has developed programs where the state and local governments purchase all development rights on farming land to permanently preserve the farmland-- and give farmers the funds to reinvest to increase agricultural productivity.
  • Innovative Conservation Planning: "Purchase of development rights programs coupled with innovative conservation planning efforts help New Jersey grow in ways that consume less land and strike a balance between preservation and growth." Programs in the state encourage rural development to cluster in higher-density corridors to help preserve farmland both through zoning and allowing farms to transfer development rights to areas of higher density.
  • Economic Development: "Just as important as preserving the state’s farmland is preserving the state’s farmers and the agricultural industry that sustains them." One key program is identifying new markets for fresh produce, markets where local farmers have an advantage, and helping them market their products effectively.
  • Natural Resource Conservation: "As stewards of the land, farmers must protect the quality of our environment and conserve the natural resources that sustain it by implementing conservation practices that improve water quality, conserve water and energy, prevent soil erosion and reduce the use of nutrients and pesticides." The state can help farmers become key lieutenants in environmental sustainability through training in best practices and offering financial incentives to implement riparian buffers, filter strips, contour buffer strips and grass waterways to prevent destructive runoffs from their lands.
  • Agricultural Industry Sustainability: "Educating the next generation of farmers, welcoming newcomers and ensuring the safety and well-being of today’s farm workers are critical components of maintaining a profitable, strong agricultural industry poised for a bright future." In order to improve work conditions in the farming industry, New Jersey has become a strong advocate for ending the underground exploitation of undocumented workers and having the federal government give such immigrants a path to legal employment where their rights are protected.
As the plan outlines, agricultural preservation of open lands is a complement to better urban planning. Higher density development with less pollution means better conditions for sustaining a vibrant agricultural sector. And more environmentally-sustainable practices makes it easier for farms to maintain that role over the long-term. Every state facing urban encroachment on agricultural lands should check out the New Jersey approach.