Assembly bill criticized by NJFB, other ag industries

AFP Correspondent

TRENTON — Bill A323, concerning activities — including special events — on preserved farmland, was released from committee on March 5.
Sponsored by Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, R-Dist. 12, whose district includes Ocean, Monmouth, Burlington and Middlesex counties, the bill was heard in the Assembly’s Tourism and the Arts Committee.
The controversial bill, is opposed by the New Jersey Farm Bureau and the State Agricultural Development Board, among other interested parties.
Critics say the bill may seem non-detrimental — and even beneficial — to agriculture on first glance, but has the potential to undo years of hard work, and to impact the Farmland Preservation program, detractors say.
Ed Wengryn, who spoke on behalf of the NJFB at the session, summarized the concerns.
“The agritourism issue has been a big one with the agricultural community for a couple of years,” Wengryn told the committee. “Right to Farm protects commonly accepted agricultural practices, and so, in the realm of agritourism, what is commonly accepted,” is the key issue of concern, he said.
After several years of hard work, the SADC has released draft AMPs (agricultural management practices) for agritourism operations, which are currently open for public comment, through April 15.
After review and revisions, the AMPS will be formally adopted and farms — including preserved farms — will be protected under Right to Farm laws as long as they follow these AMPs, Wengryn said.
The current AMPS do not specifically address weddings or “milestone” special events being hosted on farms, but AMPS for these specific situations can be readily adapted through the SADC’s existing process, he said.
Because the Assembly bill permits agritourism events on preserved farmland, specifically including special milestone events such as weddings and other non-agricultural affairs, it automatically would dictate that preserved farms can host these activities, should the bill become law.
Instead of allowing the SADC to determine what type of activities are considered standard agricultural practices, and therefore protected under right-to-farm law, the bill usurps the SADC’s ability to exclude certain activities, or to determine more structured guidelines for their appropriateness, Wengryn argued.
“This bill says on preserved land you can do these activities, rather than saying that the SADC should consider or develop rules for these activities under Right to Farm,” Wengryn said in a follow-up interview. “By saying they (weddings and special events) can and should happen on preserved farms, you are changing in the law what preserved farmland can be used for,” and “the SADC would not be able to say that an entertainment space is not agriculture.”
Special events, Wengryn argued, are just that: They may occur occasionally on a farm, but are not an accepted, regular farm activity, and are not the basis of the farm’s existence.
“When you put it into the bill and the statue as it is, it means somebody could buy preserved farmland with the intent of holding weddings and those kind of events and build their agriculture around the catering side of things, because you’ve said through the legislature that it’s a protected activity,” he summarized.
Assemblyman Dancer stated that substitutions to the bill were made specifically to address concerns from the opposition regarding special events.
The bill was released out of committee in 2011, but with much opposition centered around allowing special events. This led to his meeting with Susan Payne, executive director of the SADC, and others, in order to attempt to address those concerns, Dancer said.
The meetings resulted in the substitutions to the bill, which establish some parameters and outline the circumstances under which special events can occur on preserved farmland.
Dancer expressed strong support for the revised bill, stating that it would “be a real shot in the arm for agritourism in the state.”
He then outlined the prerequisites for an activity to be considered agritourism: It must “advance the agricultural output of the farm,” and also “promote agricultural tourism.”
In addition, certification will be needed to demonstrate that special events do not exceed 50 percent of the farm’s gross annual revenues, thus insuring that the events are supportive and ancillary to the primary activity of agriculture, Dancer said.
The only two supporters who gave testimony Monday both represented vineyard and winery operations.
Representatives from Laurita Winery and Hopewell Valley Vineyards each gave statements supporting their beliefs that special events are designed to enhance the agricultural experience of guests, and to promote the agricultural output of their farms.
A representative of Hopewell Valley Vineyards recounted her family’s struggle with whether or not to preserve their farmland, fearing that giving up their development rights might limit their ability to host the on-farm activities which are crucial to their survival as farmers.
Special events, held on-farm, generate income because they attract new customers, who then purchase the farm’s wine, and tell others about the wine, leading to increased sales, she said.
“The best way for New Jersey to reclaim its agricultural heritage is to have its residents become active participants, supporters, and frequent visitors to the state’s beautiful farmlands,” she said.
Ray Shea, owner of Laurita Winery in New Egypt, also spoke of the need to host special events, and said that the events are consistent with “the growing of grapes and the sales of wines,” and therefore are farm-related activities. “We are destination wineries. We are located in agricultural areas. We have to draw people to us,” he said.
For better or for worse, bill A323 has moved along and is one step closer to becoming law. The real concern for the entire agricultural community is whether or not special events, as defined by the bill, will detract from actual farming on preserved farmland.
Would the agricultural community be better served by allowing the SADC to determine what agritourism activites are “commonly accepted agricultural practices,” and granting them right-to-farm protection via AMPs?
Will this bill, if signed into law, be a boost for farms and agriculture, leading more farmers to preserve their land without fear of restrictions on agritourism activities, or will it led to non-farmers owning even more land — land which has had its development rights permanently removed and must remain open for agriculture through the Farmland Preservation program — thus moving the land further away from “farming” and much closer to “tourism?”