New Jersey farmers, researchers, and agricultural officials told a Senate panel Thursday they need assistance to stay competitive with producers in other states, warning high costs, hungry deer, and a dearth of qualified workers threaten their viability.

While New Jersey’s agricultural industry is among the country’s smallest, it still contains nearly 10,000 farms producing roughly $1.5 billion in revenue annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But a small number of large — and endangered — farms account for much of that revenue, said Brian Schilling, director of the food health, and natural sciences research cooperative at Rutgers University.

“We’re losing some of those farms due to economic hardships, so the time to act is really now,” Schilling said.

The Senate Commerce Committee took testimony from experts and farmers in search of how to support the industry better. Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, the committee’s chairwoman, said she intends to draft legislation to waive permitting fees for farmers whose properties suffer weather damage.

She also signed on to sponsor the Senate version of a bill Assembly members Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset) and Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex) introduced that would require an annual week of agriculture-themed lessons and activities for children from kindergarten through second grade.

If large farms go out of business, it would cost the state millions of dollars in federal aid, which is awarded based on the production of certain types of crops, said Paul Hlubik, a Chesterfield farmer and member of the State Board of Agriculture representing hay and grain producers.

These closures would also have rippling effects on the industry as a whole, as large farms often operate on land leased from smaller family farms.

New Jersey’s high cost of living presents another hurdle for the state’s farmers.

“We are price-takers and not price-makers,” said Caroline Etsch, a Monroe farmer and former chair of the New Jersey Farm Bureau’s women’s leadership committee. “Our price for our field crops, our corn, is set in Chicago at the Board of Trade, and that money doesn’t go as far in New Jersey as it would in some other places.”

Other perennial issues like pests and weather also take a toll. Deer, in particular, often devour a quarter or more of a farm’s crop, sometimes forcing farmers to stop producing on a piece of land altogether, Schilling said.

While a state program to subsidize deer fencing has seen some success, that program is resource-limited and sometimes pushes deer to eat the crops of another farm.

The agricultural sector also hasn’t been spared the supply chain and labor issues that have plagued industry as the country moves out of the pandemic.

“We use a lot of trucks. We use a lot of forklifts in operations, and while we may be able to hire a truck driver, finding the person that can actually operate the machinery in the field is a different conversation for us,” Etsch said.

She added the number of workers who grew up on farms and are familiar with the specialized equipment used on them has shrunk over time, and many of those remaining returned to work on their own family farms.

Weather — like the droughts seen this year or the flooding seen in 2021 — can also ruin a crop and potentially cost farmers millions in revenue, forcing them to take loans to reach their next harvest and pay expenses not covered by insurance.

Those costs can be compounded if a farmer has already taken loans for equipment or facilities needed to produce a new type of crop, as happened to Leonard Grasso.

Grasso’s farm lay in the path of the tornado that ripped apart homes in Mullica Hill last September. It destroyed facilities he’d built through low-interest loans obtained through federal and state programs and damaged his home and housing for the farm’s laborers.

Months later, when he decided to rebuild, he faced permit fees from the state that Cruz-Perez said lawmakers should waive for those affected by inclement weather.

“It’s a labor of love. When the love goes away, it’s just labor, and then no one wants to do it,” Grasso said. “Any effort that we, in our state particularly, can come up with together to solve a few of these problems that we have to keep us going — it keeps the love.”


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