We have recently seen Met Life announce intentions to close a major office facility in New Jersey and consolidate operations in North Carolina.  It isn’t the first major corporation to make such a decision and there’s nothing we can do about it. Offices can go anywhere.  What we can do, and I believe we must do, is intensify our support for the resource-based industries that cannot be taken away. The list is short. We have coastal tourism. We have agriculture. And have the synthesis of the two in agri-tourism.

We have tragically seen what a single sudden storm can do to the coast and we must invest in its reconstruction. At the same time, however, we must not lose sight of the far slower but more permanent threat that is slowly destroying our agricultural base. This is not a storm that can’t be avoided. This is the ongoing march of development that is consuming agricultural acreage year after year. Two simple facts make this need increasingly pressing. Developable land is becoming scarce and farmland is typically the easiest land to develop. As the housing market recovers, demand will drive up land prices and make preservation efforts more difficult and costly.

Perhaps the hardest thing for some segments of the public to understand is the need to preserve farmland. These people aren’t farmers. They may never even see a farm where they live. In their minds food is something that simply comes from the grocery store and how it got there is not their concern. The truth is that farmland is the essential anchor of a multi-billion dollar industry that includes planting, growing, harvesting, packing, shipping and selling New Jersey farm products across the world. It employs people who work directly in it and indirectly supports jobs for all the people who produce everything from tractors and fertilizer to the small containers for strawberries and blueberries that come in through the summer. 

And farmland does far more than support farming. In much of New Jersey, farmland either sits on top of aquifer recharge areas or in water supply watersheds. Keeping open land like this open and not paving it over for the next subdivision protects the water supply that millions of New Jersey residents who have never seen a farm rely on in their daily lives. Preserving farmland also provides another benefit to every homeowner in New Jersey.  Taking land out of the market means fewer new homes can be built and demand for housing will necessarily be directed back onto existing homes making them worth more.

Preserving farmland isn’t just about providing a pretty scenic landscape to drive through. It is about sustaining a vital resource-based industry, protecting our drinking water supply and helping to support the value of homes across the entire state. The only people who truly should have no interest in farmland preservation are those who don’t own homes, eat food or use drinking water. Everyone else should make this one of their highest public priorities. Right now the need is to preserve a minimum of 500,000 acres to maintain farming industry and time is running out. Once this land is lost it cannot be replaced. We must have a dedicated source of funding for this effort and vocal public support. That’s why I’m raising my voice now. I hope more of you will join me.

Freeholder Lillian G. Burry, liaison to parks, open space, farmland and historic preservation.