Agriculture event centers on preservation

Friday, June 11, 2004

by Martin C. Bicketto
Article courtesy Today's Sunbeam

MANNINGTON TWP. -- It was a start.

More than 100 residents and local elected officials gathered Thursday at the Ware Building here take an important step toward collectively addressing farmland preservation, open space planning and town center revitalization in Salem County.

The event -- which the Salem County Agriculture Development Board and Preservation Salem, Inc. sponsored -- sparked tough questions from officials, residents concerned with development and area farmers, who all voiced different concerns regarding these complex and sometimes divisive "smart growth" methods.

Farmland preservation issues dominated the event.

"Why wouldn't a farmer jump on (farmland preservation) -- is it all about the money?" asked resident Frank Mayer to the panel of experts, which included Greg Romano and Timothy Brill from the New Jersey Agricultural Development Board, Curt Gellerman from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Green Acres Program, Salem County Planning Director Ron Ruckenstein and Andrew Busby, chairman of the Salem County Agricultural Development Board.

Due to its close proximity to Gloucester County, Mayer's hometown, Upper Pittsgrove, has steadily seen more development during the past few years. At the same time, it and other municipalities have made Salem County number two in the state in terms of farmland preservation, having preserved 16,895 acres with 3,000 more acres in the works.

"Down here, you're trying to steal land at $3,000 an acre and you wonder why farmers won't sell," said Kurt Kaufmann of Elsinboro Township, referring to the prices that county and state governments pay to farmers for their land per acre.

William Sumiel, president of the Salem City Council, took issue with the fact that his municipality was neither a focus in farmland preservation efforts or part of the main growth corridor designated in the county's Smart Growth Plan.

"I hear nothing about Salem though we still share in the burden for farmland preservation," he said.

Salem County has preserved roughly 120 farms since 1990 and spent $700,000 on farmland preservation in 2004 alone.

The question and answer session followed presentations from the state and county experts on the evening's subjects. Brill spoke about the potential of farmland preservation in areas like Salem County for boosting area commerce and preserving a rural quality of life. He repeatedly assured the crowd that farming was still an crucial part of the state's economy.

"Many people look at agriculture as a dying industry, and that's certainly not the truth," he said.

Brill and other speakers urged cooperation between residents, farmers and government officials in reaching smart growth goals.

"We can do more together than we can working separately," he said.

Event organizers like Jean Jack, president of Preservation Salem, Inc. hoped the symposium would encourage that kind of attitude among its attendees.

"We're here to get started on a series of conversation that will lead us in the right direction for Salem County," she said.

Public Meeting