Agriculture’s roots run deep in New Jersey, and farming still plays a vital role in the state’s economy. The state’s Right to Farm Act continues to ensure farms have the right to operate alongside new and existing development as the state’s population grows – and as farmers and neighbors are brought closer together.
This includes places like Johnson’s Corner Farm in Medford, a more than 50-year-old operation offering a variety of farm goodies, such as fresh pumpkins, honey and baked goods, plus a U-pick operation and market. This farm and many others offer an array of benefits to New Jersey and its consumers from agritourism to education to sales – not to mention how they continue the long- standing tradition of the agricultural way of life.
Pete Furey, New Jersey Farm Bureau director, is intimately familiar with the New Jersey Right to Farm Act, which was established in the early 1980s. He has been closely involved with this legislation that ensures farmers can peacefully, and rightfully, run their operations. The act legally protects commercial farms that operate responsibly from restrictive municipal and county regulations, as well as helps resolve conflicts involving residential and commercial neighbors.
“Southern and western New Jersey has a lot of open spaces. But in central New Jersey and definitely in the northeastern part of the state, farmers will generally have suburban neighbors somewhere close by,” he says. “So it’s a top-tier issue for our farmers, and we pay a lot of attention to it.”
While the state’s population growth is positive in many ways, such as allowing consumers better access to fresh, locally produced farm foods, there are challenges. Farm Bureau’s annual poll of its members consistently ranks Right to Farm as the leading policy issue.
“In a metropolitan state like New Jersey, farmers are extremely conscious of nuisance complaints from either neighbors or government agencies that don’t understand farming,” Furey says. “If there is a municipality that doesn’t understand agriculture, that is a nightmare for a farmer.”
Right to Farm assumes farms are not a nuisance from the start, and that they are “doing the right thing,” Furey says, as long as the operators are following recommended management practices and meet the other eligibility criteria of the act.
“If I’m a farmer conducting conventional farm practices, I have the benefit of the doubt that I’m doing the right thing,” he explains.
The State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) administers New Jersey’s Right to Farm program in partnership with the 18 county agricultural development boards (CADBs). The law requires a complaining neighbor or town to file a written complaint with the CADB before taking a farmer to court over the matter. The CADB, and in some cases, the SADC, then determines whether the farm’s activity meets the eligibility criteria for protection under Right to Farm, working to balance the concerns of both sides to make a decision.
If there’s a conflict between a farm activity and a municipal or county regulation, the farm might not even have to follow that regulation if the farmer can show a legitimate agriculturally based reason for the activity
If protections weren’t in place in a growing, densely populated state like New Jersey, farms might have a completely different experience when it comes to resolving disputes. For example, a farmer might suddenly feel like a stranger in his or her own backyard because a new neighbor who moved into the area complains about normal farming practices.
“But that doesn’t happen in New Jersey now,” Furey says, “because anyone moving to the countryside has to respect the farm – it’s state law.”