The Farmland Preservation Program was established with the Agricultural Retention Act of 1983, and is administered by the State Agricultural Development Committee and the County Agriculture Development Boards. Farmers were, at first, somewhat cautious to buy into what was then a new and untested program. In Sussex County, it was not until 1990 that the first farm, 121 acres in Green and Andover Townships, was preserved. The program has since accelerated all over New Jersey for many reasons, including industry economic pressures, droughts, an increase in the deer population and expanding residential development. And as the agricultural community decreases, so does the support system by which a farmer can borrow a part for an ailing tractor or rely on help from other farmers in an emergency. Aggressive promotion of the program has more than doubled the pace of New Jersey's farmland preservation funding this year, and the agriculture department remains confident that 500,000 of the remaining 830,000 acres of New Jersey farmland can be preserved. Farmland Preservation is completely voluntary, and there are a variety of programs available to assist farmers to maintain their property in functional agriculture.
The eight year Farmland Preservation program provides for a 50/50 cost share program between the State and the landowner to pursue soil and water conservation projects such as terrace systems, contour farming, stream protection, and irrigation. The voluntary, non-competitive program is becoming more popular as environmental laws become stricter. The eight year restriction requires that the property remain "in active agriculture'" for the duration of the easement.
In the permanent easement program, once a farm is accepted into a designated agriculture development area with long-term agriculture potential, the County Agriculture Development Board evaluates all applications and select the best conditions for a given state funding cycle. The property is then appraised both at fair market value and as property restricted to farm use. The difference between the two figures is the resultant development easement value, which the State Agriculture Development Board certifies. This is what the landowner may receive if admitted into the program. Landowners who discount their land below its certified value move higher up in the evaluation process and have a better chance of being funded. For every 1% less they agree to accept of their certified value, they receive an additional two points on their quality score ranking. Once farmers receive money from the program they can pay off debts, reinvest in the farm, put away money for retirement, or, if they choose, leave the area. In return, the land becomes deed restricted in perpetuity for agricultural use. A farmer may change the type of operation at any time, and agricultural buildings may be erected.
Regardless of which program is selected, the land remains on the tax rolls, unlike land that is preserved for open space in parks, refuges and wildlife management areas. In addition to keeping long established farm families in business, Farmland Preservation allows young farmers to enter the marketplace. They often cannot afford to purchase land at fair market value, but they can afford deed restricted land. For them, Farmland Preservation is a perfect way to own the land.
The same extended families that have run them for generations operate many of the surviving farms in Northwest New Jersey. For most of these, sustaining their tradition has more been a matter of adapting long-standing dairy or field crop uses to nursery and produce. Each situation is unique, presenting its own problems and solutions. Landowners interested in the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program can find out more here.