Legislators meet Salem County farmers
WOODSTOWN — Salem County Ag Extension held a legislative bus tour Aug. 10 of three impressive, large farms and featured several farmers discussing issues they face.
Along with legislative aides, local mayors and media, the tour group included knowledgeable people in agriculture like Peter Furey from New Jersey Farm Bureau and state Agriculture Secretary Doug Fisher.
The tour group got to see and hear, first-hand, the hard, cold realities of farming from smart, crafty people who’ve been doing it for years, like Santo Maccherone of Circle M Farm and his son, John; Rachel and David Sickler, who take a regenerative approach at their Circle View Farms, a livestock and poultry operation; and the last stop with George Cassaday at Cassaday Farms, who had printed handouts for visitors, breaking down the costs of his operation. His handouts helped to explain why he closed his short talk by saying he’s not sure if he’ll be in business a year or two from now, though he predicted there will always be a place for smaller residence farms with roadside retail stands.
Enlightening talks were also offered on the bus while en route to the next stops. Speakers included Dan Wunderlich, who spoke about the Jersey-Raised initiative among people at the Department of Agriculture and livestock farmers of all kinds; Salem County Agent Alex Delcollo, who spoke about programs addressing food insecurity in the county, and Byron Dubois and Mike Brooks, who addressed labor issues related to ag production in Salem County.
Newly installed Salem County Rutgers Cooperative Extension agent Melissa Bravo, a veteran beef cattle farmer from northern Pennsylvania who goes home on weekends to check on her herds, distributed information packets about the tour.
“To be successful here in the county, farmers need to be making $100,000. The dairy producers wanted me to share that with you; for them to make $100,000 they need 100 acres and 100 cows.”
“We had several reporters call about the tour to say they couldn’t make it, and they were also asking about the exodus of dairy farms in the county,” she said, noting Salem County now has just four dairy farms and about 900 dairy cows. “Salem County, with a population of 66,000 people, can consume enough dairy products to provide 23 dairy farms with 100 acres each and 100 dairy cows, yet we don’t have a dairy processor left in the county,” she added
The focus has shifted to the export of products out of the county, including milk, meat, vegetables, herbs and fruits. As the bus turned on to Auburn Road to make its way to Santo and John Maccherone’s Circle M Farms, she pointed out, “visualize that 100 acres for a dairy farm that could be making $100,000, this is also the same footprint that can go for a 150-acre warehouse facility with proposals for a 36-acre facility on this road expanding to 150 acres for parking and additional resources, taking that land out of production.”
There is pressure to add warehouse space in Salem County because of the relative proximity of the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 295.
“Salem County has lost about 4 percent of its agricultural production since 2017,” she said.
Last spring, then-New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney told The New Jersey Farmer, without support from the state legislature and 21 county governments, “the Garden State is at risk of becoming the warehouse state.”
Even in relatively wide-open Salem County there is pressure to convert farmland to warehouses, farmers on the tour said. Similar pressures for warehouse space exist up in parts of northwest New Jersey in close proximity to Routes 287, 78 and 80, and it seems, at most every exit on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Salem County has about 73,000 acres in cropland and about 219,000 acres in total, so more than 56% of the county is rooted in production agriculture. The county also has about 1,000 acres devoted to sweet corn production, Bravo said, as the bus passed by large fields of unharvested asparagus. As was the case in Burlington and other counties, Bravo said many large scale asparagus growers took a hit this past spring, as too much of it was imported from Peru, resulting in a price drop.
“We had a big market price issue this past spring and a lot of farmers in this county and Gloucester County had to abandon their asparagus and switch over to more valuable crops,” Bravo said adding soybean and corn growers are also under pressure to remain profitable this season.
Farmers in Salem County use significant numbers of seasonal workers who loyally return to many farm operations year after year from April until November. Many larger farms also provide free housing for these workers.
“They’re very valued laborers, but we lack the local labor pool with the skills and the desire to get out there on a day like today,” she said.
Bravo said there are commercial farm operations that make more than $100,000 because they have access to nearby jobs off the farm.
“Commercial farms are making more than $100,000 because they have that commercial base. But the base here in Salem County is that anyone farming needs to make $100,000,” she said again, noting there are over 3,000 residential and intermediate farms in the county.
“A significant portion of them, I think over 37 percent, are in the intermediate/residence farm category. That’s where our long-term focus is, on making market access sustainable for an equitable cross-section of farm types.”
In the event of cataclysmic climate change in the Garden State, “we still have the capacity here to feed the people we have here in New Jersey and especially in Salem county, but we lack processing capacity, so there’s a lot of hope and desire and interest in seeing some of that stable processing return here so producers have somewhere to take their local goods.”
Brooks described his Dusty Lane Farms, located in Elmer, a 2,000 acre grain and vegetables operation.
“We raise fresh market peppers and some cabbage, but our main crop is potatoes for the potato chipping industry,” Brooks said. Dusty Lane Farms raises about 500 acres of white potatoes and sells through brokers to companies like Herr’s and Wise and Campbell’s.
“Since 2006 we have been using a GPS auto steer system for our tractors which saves fuel, and eliminates driver fatigue, you don’t have to skip rows, it’s just a better way of controlling your equipment.
“We also use Watermark sensors and moisture sensors for controlling our irrigation system,” he said adding the sensors in Dusty Lane’s pepper beds indicate the level of moisture depletion in the soil and automatically turns on irrigation.
Regarding other emerging technologies, Brooks added, “there are some things out there in the agricultural industry that are just amazing, but we don’t have the economies of scale yet for this stuff in southern New Jersey.” He cited much larger operations, friends who have 10,000 and 15,000 acre farms in Corpus Christi, Texas and Belzoni, Miss., where investments in these newer technologies is more financially feasible.
“In the state of New Jersey we have a great farmland preservation program, but hopefully we can make sure it also keeps all of our support businesses that sell these products and equipment to us, so we have all the inputs we need right here, so we can continue to have a viable agricultural industry in southern New Jersey and throughout the rest of the state,” Brooks said. “We need the suppliers here to sell us the products that we need in order to continue to farm efficiently.
“We also need employees, so it’s really important that our FFA programs in high schools continue to educate young people about where our food comes from. There is so much misinformation about what we do on a daily basis out there in the world,” Brooks said.
“We as farmers are sometimes vilified because we’re polluters, but my generation has been taught that we are stewards of the land: you take care of the land and the land will take care of you!”