Farmland preservation an evolving state in N.J.

Managing Editor

ATLANTIC CITY (Feb. 15, 2015) — In New Jersey, virtually any discussion of farmland preservation also involves the state’s legislated right to farm.
The two programs became state law together in 1983, each part of a “two-headed spear” to preserve land for agriculture and address threats to farmers’ ability to operate, said Brian Schilling Rutgers Extension agricultural policy specialist, who led a discussion on land preservation at this year’s New Jersey Agricultural Convention and Trade Show.
The state’s preservation program has kept about 270,000 acres from development — about a third of the state and the highest percentage of any state.
“This is really, in some aspects, the envy of the nation,” Schilling said.
But challenges remain, Schilling said, as the state has to monitor preserved properties to ensure the terms of the easements aren’t broken, continue to interpret deeds of easement as agriculture changes and the land changes hands and public perception of program’s benefits can change.
In general, however, the public remains in favor of preserving farmland at the public’s expense. Citing survey data from Rutgers, Schilling said only 8 percent of people said they are unsatisfied with how preservation money is spent and New Jerseyans routinely reapprove the program when it comes up on the ballot periodically.
Schilling said often during political cycles, concerns mount in the state that land preserved through the program is taken out of agriculture as it’s bought up by wealthy landowners and estates, but a close look at the program shows that’s not the case.
Compared farmed acres of farms before and after they were preserved to see if more land was exiting agriculture after it was inherited or sold again.
“The answer is no — we’re just not seeing that,” Schilling said. “A lot of times, that land is still made available for farming through lease arrangements or other terms.”
A major decision farmers face when participating in the farmland preservation program is whether or not to keep part of a parcel excluded from the program such as a farm house and buildings. The decision weights income that would come from the larger easement against the flexility to do things on that part of the property that an easement may not permit, Schilling said.
Shilling added the role of the state’s Farmland Assessment program in helping to keep farmland, preserved or not, in agriculture “cannot be overstated.”
Patty Wright from the state’s Division of Taxation said 20 percent of land in New Jersey qualifies for Farmland Assessment and though the figure is down about 5 percent from when the program started, the tax law has done a great deal to maintain that amount of farmland.
“That five percent is a lot of acres — but there’s absolutely no way you’d have 20 percent without farmland assessment,” she said.
Talking about changes in the assessment program, Wright said stated law was updated in 2013 to raise the threshold of gross income from farming from $500 to $1,000 on the first five acres and those changes go into effect this year.
Wright said for parcels less then seven acres, landowners are required to submit a narrative describing the operation and a sketch or map of the acres devoted to agriculture.
For larger farms, Wright said it’s easier for tax assessors to see the land in production but smaller parcels can be harder for people with little connection to farming.
“There’s a lot of farms where there’s nothing being shown and the assessor is at a disadvantage,” Wright said. “It’s pretty clear here. They need to know what you’re doing and where it is.”
Wright said she also expects new policy guidelines for assessing mixed use properties next month.
Another aid to keeping land in agriculture is the New Jersey chapter of Northeast Organic Farmers Association’s FarmLink program which seeks to improve young and beginning farmers’ access to land. NOFA-NJ hopes to launch its FarmLink website in a few weeks, Erica Evans, the group’s beginning farmer program coordinator said during the session.
The website brings together farmers who are looking for land to farm and landowners looking for someone to farm their land.