Several weeks ago, we were assigned to read “Urban Growth and Open Space Loss in New Jersey: 1986-2007”. In the document was a particularly eye-opening statistic: that the state has lost 24% of its agriculture-producing acreage since 1986. In the same time period, developed land has increased by 26.8%, and takes up almost triple the acreage in the state devoted to agriculture. However, according to the 2012 Annual Report of Farm Statistics Report, since 2006 New Jersey has seen increased cash receipts from its agricultural products (besides a modest decline in revenues from livestock). What, then, are we to make of the increased returns from farming on a smaller amount of land? As the state nears “build-out”, what can be done to maximize agricultural returns but provide a stable source of food for the state’s citizens?
New Jersey’s nickname, the Garden State, is not undeserved. Its temperate climate all but ensures the growth of deciduous vegetation and the fertility of its lands for farming asparagus, cranberries, carrots, and bell peppers to name a few. The state is among the top producers in the country for blueberries, cranberries, peaches, and bell peppers. Importantly, the states preceding it in rank for crop production are those whose geographic area is much larger by several factors. All of this is in spite of being the fifth smallest state in the country and the most densely populated by area. The state has so far been able to somewhat balance the different demands from its land, though there remains much potential to re-evaluate the state’s land use as the state’s manufacturing areas close and decline, suburban developments build on agricultural land and open space, and the state’s population continues to grow.
The solution I would like to pose to this problem is de facto decentralization of food production in the state. Though the state has seen a decrease in acreage for both open space and agriculture, the two are not mutually inclusive. The state is bleeding open space, which can never be recovered once developed. Yet, agriculture does not face such spatial and biological constraints. Growing produce on one’s personal property (such as a backyard) has long been a hobby for those that have the time and resources to afford to do so. However, if there was a way to incentivize this (either through tax breaks, free plant care training or grants for seeds/materials), or to make it affordable for those of all income types to do so, the state and its citizens would be much better off.
For one, many urban areas feature “food deserts”, where access to affordable and nutritious food is extremely limited. Moreover, “whole foods” and produce, staples of any healthy diet can quite easily be grown in New Jersey, even while the amount of land dedicated exclusively for those purposes decreases. Brownfields, whose presence is noticeable throughout the state and is concentrated particularly in older urban areas, can be used as community gardens (which has been established practice, but not on a wider scale) after some restoration work and through careful choice of foods to be grown. The decrease of agricultural acreage need not mean less food is grown in New Jersey, but perhaps less food is sold in the state. New Jersey can very likely still be the Garden State, but to maintain this status perhaps we as citizens should be looking to tend our own gardens first.