THE STATE WE’RE IN: When a farm stand is not a farm stand?

THE STATE WE’RE IN by Michele S. Byers: Farms stands should not be sophisticated retail stores.

By: Michele S. Byers
   Among the things that give New Jersey its name as the Garden State are the countless rustic farm stands that dot our rural highways, especially during the harvest seasons.
   Some of these farm stands have grown into sophisticated operations — selling everything from baked goods to country knickknacks — that provide farm families with income to supplement their often razor-thin profits from traditional farming.
   But New Jersey’s State Agricultural Development Committee, which administers the Farmland Preservation Program, recently had to answer the question "how far is too far?" when it comes to farm stands on preserved farmland.
   John Deere Landscapes — a division of the globally famous and large John Deere Corp. — purchased a 150-acre preserved farm in Hunterdon County last August for $1.25 million. It planned on opening a large-scale nursery and retail store that initially would sell plants and other supplies brought in by truck.
   After much discussion, the committee rejected John Deere’s application by a vote of 8-1, concluding it strayed too far from farming to be allowed on land the state had invested tax dollars in to preserve as farmland.
   The question of what kinds of activities and structures are OK for preserved farmland is an important one. After all, we — meaning all New Jersey taxpayers — are investing millions of our tax dollars to preserve what remains of the Garden State’s fertile soils.
   This case has attracted attention from many diverse groups — from neighbors and town officials because of the potential impacts on the community; from farmers concerned about further limitations on their activities; and from the New Jersey Farm Bureau, which supported John Deere’s application.
   An attorney for John Deere reportedly said the committee’s decision could threaten farm stands across the state. Let’s chalk that kind of statement up to posturing. John Deere purchased this farm after the land already was preserved, and with the knowledge that it needed approval for its store.
   In fact, this decision will affect almost no farm stands — the traditional road-side stand was never an issue here.
   In other words, there’s plenty of room to preserve farmland, have a farm stand and diversify a farm’s income stream. New Jerseyans have gone on record numerous times with their votes and their pocketbooks to preserve farmland and farming. However, building a Home Deport- or Wal-Mart-style retail store and calling it a "farm stand" because it sells plants is not part of our farmland preservation vision.
   If you ever want more information about conserving the precious land and natural resources of this state we’re in, I invite you to visit NJCF’s Web site at www.njconservation.org, or contact me at info@njconservation.org or 1-888-LAND-SAVE.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.