Aspiring farmer, 14, lobbies against state agriculture cuts

By Katie Wagner, Staff Writer
   MONTGOMERY — Luke Johnson feels strongly about keeping farming in New Jersey, so strongly that he missed almost an entire school day to urge the state Legislature not to eliminate the state Department of Agriculture, as proposed by Gov. Jon Corzine, or any agricultural programs.
   The Montgomery High School freshman gave testimony regarding the abolishment of the Department of Agriculture that has been included in the state’s 2009 proposed budget, during a state Assembly Budget Committee public hearing last week.
   Luke, who hopes to pursue a career in farming one day, developed an appreciation for farming through participating in 4-H youth development clubs over the past five years.
   4-H is a youth organization administered by the Cooperative Extension System of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for students beginning with the first grade. Its goal is to develop citizenship, leadership and life skills through mostly experiential learning programs.
   In New Jersey, the organization offers countywide clubs, which focuson a variety of topics, including, but not limited to farming practices. There are approximately 893 4-H clubs in the state, with almost 13,000 club participants. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers receives county, state and federal funding for all 4-H clubs and programs.
   According to Mark Robson, director of the NJAES, the state has proposed reducing the amount of state aid the NJAES receives by $4.7 million.
   The 4-H Club Branchburg Beef, Dairy and Livestock, which Luke belongs to, is an example of one of the agricultural programs threatened by the proposed state budget that Luke is fighting to save. For Luke, participating in this and other 4-H clubs has opened doors to other opportunities for learning about farms.
   A visit to a dairy farm, which Luke said showed him “what it takes to work on a farm,” is one experience he gained from serving as a member of Branchburg Beef, Dairy and Livestock. The dairy farm was home to one of the club’s members, who Luke befriended.
   Much of what Luke has learned during 4-H club meetings about agriculture has allowed him to do more on his parents’ farm in Montgomery.
   ”Luke actually helps out on our farm,” said Luke’s mother, Debbie Johnson. “He’s going to plant sweet corn in the backyard and knows how to drive our tractor and de-horn our goats.”
   ”A 4-H club meeting isn’t just a meeting, it’s a learning experience,” Ms. Johnson added. “I think that it’s important for the kids to know where their food is coming from and what it takes to raise corn on a farm.”
   And Luke gained knowledge and skills in so many areas besides farming through participating in 4-H clubs.
   The annual presentations he’s given as a 4-H club member have helped him become a better speaker. In fact, last week Luke won a blue ribbon at a 4-H public speaking competition for members of Somerset County 4-H clubs. Luke will compete in the state 4-H public speaking tournament on Saturday, where he won a blue ribbon and an outstanding presenter award last year.
   ”4-H and other agricultural activities that I’ve been involved in have had a significant impact in my upbringing,” Luke said. “I’ve met a lot of friends and have been able to do public speaking, something you don’t get to do as a participant in most sports.
   ”4-H showed me how government works, work ethic, public leadership and volunteerism,” Luke added.
   In a phone interview, Assemblyman Joseph R. Malone III (R-Bordentown), said he was impressed with how well-spoken Luke was, when he testified during the public hearing on the budget.
   ”We need to do everything we can to keep the Department of Agriculture and keep kids like Luke believing in the state of New Jersey,” Assemblyman Malone said. “For a young man to come before the board because he’s concerned I think speaks a lot for him and it speaks a lot for his parents.”
   In addition to participating in agricultural 4-H clubs, Luke attends 4-H meetings focused go-kart racing and fishing and cooking fish.
   Luke said he’s also learned about nutrition through 4-H. This school year he’s given talks on the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, limiting time spent watching television or using a computer, exercising and minimizing sugar consumption.