One of the great and constant lessons of working on the State Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is how closely agricultural issues intertwine with the preservation of natural resources and open space.
It’s hard to talk about one without recognizing its impact on the other. By preserving open spaces for agricultural use, we limit urban sprawl, keep our water and soil clean, and provide for an abundance of locally grown produce.
That’s why I’m proud of the committee’s recent work in shepherding a fund to provide grants that preserve farmland into law. The Preserve New Jersey Farmland Preservation Fund directs $1.35 million from corporation business taxes into grants to nonprofits seeking to freeze development on dedicated farmland and preserve it for future generations to enjoy.
I’m also proud of the committee’s work in creating an award - the Garden State “Landowner of the Year” - that recognizes landowners for outstanding efforts preserving wildlife populations and habitat on their property. By annually recognizing those who work to preserve indigenous plants and insect populations to combat invasive insects, we are drawing attention to the need to protect native species.
Protecting native species is another example of the inseparable ties between agriculture and preserving our state’s natural resources. It’s one that the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee will continue to focus on in the months ahead. When I attended the Total Pro Expo with Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher this January, a large part of the conference focused on the importance of protecting native species - as well as the dangers of invasive species. We’ve all seen what invasive Eurasian watermilfoil and water chestnut can do to the natural grasses of an estuary. We must constantly call attention to the important role that native plants play in our state's ecology and the challenges that invasive species - both plants and insects - present to maintaining healthy local ecosystems.
One of our biggest priorities in 2020 will be making sure that every farm can continue to do the work that makes Garden State agriculture - our third-largest industry - succeed. That’s why we’re looking into legislation enshrining farmers’ “right to farm”- because farmers shouldn’t be entangled in litigation for the “crime” of owning a farm. If you’re doing everything by the book, you should be able to take care of your day-to-day tasks and make the investments you need to make in order to help your business succeed.
Farms aren’t the only area we plan to focus on. It’s more important than ever before to make sure we’re preserving our open spaces. In addition to making our communities more livable and healthy, open spaces provide homes for wildlife, reduce flooding, and improve air quality by filtering out pollutants. In cities, green spaces muffle noise pollution and reduce the heat island effect from asphalt and concrete.
Most New Jerseyans recognize the importance of these qualities, which is why we’ve voted to approve 80 percent of all open space ballot questions over the past 30 years. Still, we need to be ever vigilant. Development can gobble up open space at an alarming pace. The real estate boom of 2002 to 2007 drove the development of 34 football fields worth of open space a day - much of that farmland, orchards, and open fields. So, as the committee begins its work in the new legislative session, it is with a sense of urgency to protect the critical relationships between agriculture, natural resources, and our state’s open spaces.
We also recognize that this goal requires a strong relationship with New Jersey’s agricultural community. I am very grateful to have been reappointed chair of this committee, and consider it an honor and a pleasure to work with the Garden State’s farmers, nursery operators, foresters, aquacultural harvesters, gardeners, and environmentalists. All of us on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee look forward to continuing to learn and to look to New Jersey’s agricultural communities for guidance and advice.
We look forward to hearing from you.