New Jersey Loses A Good One

A little bit of shuffling in New Jersey’s state government leading up to next year’s elections.  New Jersey holds state elections in the “odd-numbered” years – in 2009 there will be a gubernatorial election with incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D-Hoboken) running for a second term, while all 80 seats in New Jersey’s General Assembly (the Lower House of the NJ State Legislature, currently controlled by Democrats 48-32) will be up for election.  Elections for seats in the Upper House (the NJ State Senate, currently controlled by Democrats 23-17) are held in years ending in 1, 3 and 7.  A “2-4-4 cycle” in order to reflect redistricting changes due to the Census.

In the midst of a recent certain other (heh…) important and closely-watched election, came news that Charles Kuperus, the head of New Jersey’s Department of Agriculture, has resigned the position he’s held for the past six years after originally being appointed by former Governor Jim McGreevey.

As someone who grew up in New Jersey, and was a resident as recently as two years ago…I’m sad to say that we lost a really good one here –

“Charlie has been taking the heat from many in the farm community who would rather be able to sell their land to developers, growing houses [rather] than crops,” Tittel said. “He has helped protect farming for the future.”

Crossposted from La Vida Locavore, more below the fold…

Unfortunately, suburban “developers” have quite a bit of influence in New Jersey…and they’re well-represented in state government regardless of which party is in power in Trenton –

In 2005, a faction of the State Board of Agriculture, which appoints the secretary with the governor’s approval, tried to force his resignation.

The Highlands preservation program — touted for its protection of vital water supplies — also preserved 35,000 acres of farmland from development in Warren and Hunterdon counties, said Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The ironic thing about the developers’ attacks on New Jersey’s Agriculture Secretary Charles Kuperus is that he’s actually a ‘pro-business’ moderate Republican from Sussex County who grew up on a dairy farm, and was the only Republican in Gov. Corzine’s cabinet.  But he did his job as well as (if not better than…) any other Agriculture Secretary in New Jersey history, and he was a strong force for farmland preservation and in promoting local sustainable agriculture through the Department’s Jersey Fresh program.

As a matter of fact, today brings news of the largest acquisition in the history of New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program

The SADC will purchase development rights to approximately 1,770 acres, creating a permanent deed restrictions allowing only agricultural use for the land. That land will still be owned by the Seabrook family.

Another estimated 120 acres are being purchased outright by the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program, officials said. That land will be managed by the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife as part of the Salem River Wildlife Recreation Area.

The land to be preserved mainly lies along Halltown, Nimrod and Haines Neck roads. Parcels also touch parts of county Route 540, Kings Highway and Pointers-Auburn Road.

“This is a very, very critical time in our state’s history and in lives of New Jerseyans,” said state Assemblyman Douglas Fisher, D-3rd Dist. “Future generations are going to think just how incredibly smart maybe we might have been to be able to do this.”

Word is that Kuperus stepped down because the faction of the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture that unsuccesfully attempted to force him out in 2005 has now gained a majority and would have soon attempted to do so again.

BTW, this is what forms the (unelected) body that largely determines agricultural policy in NJ –

The State Board of Agriculture, comprising eight members, is the policy-making body of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Its members serve for four years, with two members being replaced each year. By law, at least four of its (8) members must represent the top commodity groups in the state.  Members serve without salary, but may be reimbursed for expenses.

Nominees for NJ’s Secretary of Agriculture are ‘recommended’ to that board by the Governor, but the ultimate decision is unfortunately made by that Board.

During Kuperus’ tenure heading Agriculture, New Jersey has continued preserving farmland from suburban development, supported and expanded the Jersey Fresh program, and continued with efforts to ensure healthier food choices for children in New Jersey public schools.  All while being threatened earlier this year with Gov. Corzine’s planned elimination of the State Department of Agriculture itself as a ridiculously shortsighted cost-cutting measure in the face of state deficits.

The last part is where the Governor can not escape blame for losing a strong advocate of New Jersey’s local agricultural community, and a (formerly) powerful defender of local food security in the region.

Still The Garden State

As of 2002 (the latest available statistics), 17% of New Jersey’s total area is farmland…83% of New Jersey farms are between 1 and 99 acres, and 71% of New Jersey farms have an annual income of less than $9,999.  86.4% of New Jersey farms are owned by individuals / families, while only 1% are owned by ‘non-family corporations’.  

The pop-culture image of New Jersey is of course a gross and ridiculous exaggeration (and one which I joke about myself sometimes, but I can do that because I grew up in New Jersey…), but there is some truth to it.  New Jersey’s cities do have major problems…but with the fact that for the first time in modern history we’ll soon have a President who comes from a city and understands urban issues; hopefully we’ll begin to see some support from Washington for Newark, Paterson, Camden, Trenton, Asbury Park, Passaic, etc.  There is a huge amount of sprawl in the state, but we also need to keep in mind that no other states are sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia.  The Turnpike between Secaucus and Linden is a post-apocalyptic nightmare-scape of chemical plants and refineries; but that’s because 12-lane superhighways in and of themselves are inherently hideous scars along the face of the earth, and New Jersey just lacks the pretension to try to ‘beautify’ the landscape along the route as other states do.  Better that the Bayway refinery is located there, rather than along the Delaware River between Frenchtown and Lambertville in what I will always consider one of the most beautiful little corners of the world…

But despite all that, the fact is that throughout most of the year you can hardly go 10 miles anywhere in the state of New Jersey without passing a roadside farm stand selling local corn, peaches, blueberries, greens.  Not to mention one of the greatest artisan cheesemakers in America, Valley Shepherd Creamery (best yogurt I’ve ever had, and I still dream about their Smokey Shepherd…).  And too many other small, local artisan growers and producers to ever even begin to mention…

The local food system could definitely use a little help and support breaking into the mainstream back there – even the co-ops I used to frequent in North Jersey ironically had almost as much Oregon, Washington and California produce as I find now at my current co-op here in Oregon…and the organic / natural foods market in most of the state was dominated by Whole Foods and (in Princeton) the former Wild Oats as recently as 2 years ago.  

But those of us who’ve spent a significant amount of time in New Jersey know exactly why that state’s nickname is “The Garden State”, and that it still definitely holds true today.  For that matter, it’s summed up perfectly in the name itself – New Jersey has always been a “Garden State”, and not one dominated by gigantic corporate commodity growers.  

That most agrarian of ideals can still be found in that most unlikely of places even today, and here’s to hoping that New Jersey’s next Agriculture Secretary continues working forward towards that as Charles Kuperus did.  

And that maybe one day New Jersey’s governor will recognize the irreplaceable value of a strong local food system that begins with family farmers…

3 comments

  1. If you’re so inclined, toss me some late-season Jersey cranberries or cauliflower.  Or better yet, a local craft brew from JJ Bitting’s…

    • RiaD on November 13, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    good to see you!

    i really need to visit your place more often!

    i think very soon these forward thinking people will be lauded as heroes. as transport/labor/fertilizer/etc costs rise the common sensibility of organics will be seen, putting agri-business OUT of business.

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