New Jersey’s agricultural firsts (Off The Secretary’s Desk)
New Jersey is known for a lot of things and, although being the fifth-smallest state by land mass, a rather large number of notable personalities.
Almost everyone in this, the most densely populated state in the United States can rattle off a list of celebrities (and their accomplishments) who were born here or who made a name for themselves here.
These are most noticeable in the world of entertainment. From Frank Sinatra to Meryl Streep, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Kelly Ripa…and that’s just barely scratching the surface. There’s also Bruce Willis, Anne Hathaway, Shaquille O’Neal, Queen Latifah, John Bon Jovi, and John Travolta. New Jersey probably lays claim to more celebrities per square mile than anywhere on Earth.
Beyond entertainment, this state has always rocked when it comes to invention (Thomas Edison in Menlo Park) and engineering (John Roebling, who made the steel used in the Brooklyn Bridge).
New Jersey is a state of both grit and grace. It is populated with an astounding diversity of folks from all places around the country and the world, as well as all walks of life. We are and always have been an amalgam of determined people known for getting things done.
When it comes to those successes, innovation has always been at the core. And that combination of imagination and determination has resulted in literally thousands of national and international firsts in the Garden State.
The first live broadcast of the World Series (Essex County); the first factory to produce glass (Salem County); the first motion picture studios (Morris County); the first talking satellite (Monmouth County); the first newspaper (Cumberland County).
There are many food and beverage firsts. How about the first beer in a can, by the Krueger brand (Essex County); the first green bean casserole (Camden County); Taylor ham, aka pork roll (Mercer County); or Smarties candies (Union County)?
Then there’s the Stetson hat, the first college football game (in New Brunswick, between Rutgers and what was then called the College of New Jersey and later became Princeton), and (a new one I recently learned) the invention of the crossword puzzle by British author Arthur Wynne, while he was living in Cedar Grove.
It was published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper in 1913.
But what about New Jersey agriculture? We are not just seeds dropped in the ground. There are plenty of agricultural firsts that came from New Jersey as well.
Our farmers have been and continue to be pioneers, even if most people throughout the world do not realize the prominence this state has in the agricultural realm.
Some go centuries back. In 1828, before there even was a U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hunterdon County’s John Deats was awarded a patent for a new type of plow that made tilling the ground easier and more effective.
Seabrook Farms in Cumberland County, which farfmed 50,000 acres at one point, was a groundbreaking producer of flash-frozen agricultural products that ushered in a new world of convenience and long-term storage of fruits and vegetables all year around.
That operation really hit its stride in the World War II era, as it became a major supplier to the U.S. war effort and hired thousands of Japanese-Americans as they were released from internment camps.
The concept of using double-wall polyethylene plastics to create a more effective and energy-efficient greenhouse, and then, later, the idea of pumping warm air between the layers, were pioneered at Rutgers and tested and adapted by farmers throughout the state, later becoming a standard in the industry.
The first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (leading the USDA in a position that was created in 1862 under President Lincoln) was born in Burlington County, and the first air-delivery flight of produce occurred in 1922, with the plane taking off from Mullica Hill with a thousand pounds of vegetables (largely asparagus) and landing in Boston.
It’s not only about firsts. The history of New Jersey agriculture is replete with other astounding facts, such as Salem County farm products helping Revolutionary War soldiers to avoid starvation on the battlefield. How about the development of one of the first agriculturally themed advertising icons, the Plainsboro-based Borden dairy’s mascot Elsie the Cow, who was emblematic of the advances in cattle-breeding methods pioneered here?
Why am I writing about this?
Because I am starting a poll of the old-timers (a term I can use, because I’m one of them) to ask about more of your stories for us at the Department to archive, celebrate and disseminate. AND, just as importantly, I’m also asking the younger crowd about their “firsts and foremosts” on the farm for us to acknowledge, too.
I’ve been on farms right here in the Garden State and seen firsthand the amazing innovations that are happening right now, and in future articles, I plan to bring them to light.
Indoor aeroponic and hydroponic farms (like the massive aeroponic Aerofarms in Newark) are glimpses into the future of agriculture, and there will continue to be successful traditional farms here, too. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers will assuredly continue producing innovative advancements.
If you have a minute, please drop us a line here at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. It will have more meaning coming directly from those of you involved in the industry as the years go by. It will mean that, in years to come, people sitting in our present places will be able to help build the future while learning lessons from the past.