Historic Cowtown Rodeo's grasslands preserved in $2.6-million deal

Almost 375 acres of grassland surrounding Cowtown Rodeo in Salem County will be permanently preserved under an agreement financed mostly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and brokered by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Officials plan to officially announce the $2.6 million deal Wednesday on the property adjacent to the rodeo site. Cowtown, near Woodstown, bills itself as the oldest weekly rodeo in the nation.

The land is part of 1,700 acres owned by the Harris family, which has operated the rodeo for five generations.

About $2.1 million of the money to preserve the land comes from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.  It will be the first such preservation agreement in New Jersey under the Grasslands of Special Significance program, according to Gail Bartok, assistant state conservationist for programs with the conservation service.

“It won’t ever be used for anything other than as grasslands,” Bartok said.

The program is for livestock farmers. Cowtown uses the grasslands for breeding and grazing. Under the agreement, 374 acres will be permanently preserved, although the family retains ownership. About 100 horses and up to 500 head of cattle use the land.

The New Jersey Conservation Foundation said the history of the deal stretches back almost 15 years, when a developer offered Grant and Betsy Harris “a ridiculous amount of money” for the 1,700 acres. It wasn’t until the USDA became involved in 2016 that preservation money became available.

The couple said they couldn’t imagine parting with the land and wanted to pass it on to future generations. The deal is for less than the appraised value of the property and the family will use some of the money to purchase land it has been leasing.

“I get to make my living at my hobby every day – it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Grant Harris, a former professional rodeo rider, in a statement.  “The opportunity to make a living doing this means more to me than money.”

The couple plan to pass the land on to family including daughter Katy and her husband, R.J.

Other money for the deal came from the Open Space Institute and the William Penn Foundation. Natural Lands of Media provided strategic assistance. Pilesgrove Township also provided assistance.

“In addition to protecting a viable and profitable agricultural operation, this preservation provides conservation benefits,” said Carrie Lindig, also with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Large blocks of well-managed grasslands like the Harris property support groundwater recharge and bird habitat. ”

Officials say rare bird species such as bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, and American kestrels breed on the grassland. Bald eagles and Northern harriers also forage there.