Meet New Jersey’s mini farm-belt

ALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Standing on a little rise in the middle of Dan Chard’s muddy cow pasture, all you can see for miles around is farmland.

And the acres and acres of rolling hills, green dells, fenced pastures, and farm fields — and occasionally some barns and a few farmhouses on Chard’s property and on the holdings of his adjacent neighbors — have created a kind of mini “farm belt” in this Salem County municipality near Woodstown.

And that farm status will continue: Chard and his neighbors all have sold their property-development rights as a means of perpetually preserving their land for private ownership and agricultural use.

In this preservation program — funded through grants from the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the state Agriculture Development Committee, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and others — the farmers are given an undisclosed fair-market settlement for the deed restriction but retain full ownership of their land.   

“Everything around here is preserved, pretty much as far as the eye can see ... and that’s a good feeling,” said Chard, 53, whose farm is among the latest to be added to a contiguous block of more than 1,000 acres of preserved farmland in Alloway and Mannington Townships. Other preserved farms are scattered in a sort of patchwork throughout the rest of this mostly rural  southwestern New Jersey county.

Camera icon Ed Hille / Staff Photographer
Dan Chard is happy his Salem County farm has been approved for preservation.

Experts contend that the nutrient-rich soil land belt — located within a deep woodland and working farms region known as the Swedes’ Run Forest— is among the most agriculturally important along the East Coast.

“The NRCS appreciates the Chard family’s decision to preserve their farm,” said Carrie Lindig, a state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Because it is contiguous with other preserved parcels and 100 percent of the soils on the farm are prime or of statewide importance, this is an especially significant decision that will have long-term benefits.”

Of New Jersey’s 21 counties, Salem County has the largest number of preserved farmland acres, with 35,726 acres on the 304 farms participating in the program. About $150.7 million -- or roughly $4,200 an acre -- has been spent to purchase the deed restrictions on the farms, which average 120 acres each.  

According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, which is the most recent, there are an estimated 825 farms in Salem County, totaling 101,847 acres.

The average size of a farm in Salem County is 123 acres -- which may seem small, but actually is well above the average-sized farm in New Jersey, which is only 79 acres, on about 9,000 farms in the Garden State.

Since preservation efforts began in the state in the mid-1980s, more than 2,400 farms in New Jersey have joined the preservation program, covering about 223,000 acres, according to the state. More than $1.6 billion has been spent for the farmland purchases.

Back on Chard’s farm, among a few ruddy-colored Jerseys and some black-and-white Holsteins, the farmer is raising a herd of fluffy-coated brown Swiss cows. The extremely docile breed is known for its rugged constitution and rich milk -- which is ideal for cheese-making.

Camera icon eD HILLE / Staff Photographer
Dan Chard raises a herd of brown Swiss cows on his Salem County farm. 

Chard’s herd of 40 brown Swiss began as his eldest daughter’s 4-H project 15 years ago and has evolved into an international agricultural business that has the family shipping highly sought-after embryos from its award-winning cows to Europe and Asia.

“It’s something that we had no idea would develop into the business that it has for us ... and working on it is something that has really kept our family together,” said Chard, who also operates a small home-construction business and has interests in two dairy farms in Pennsylvania.

“We love this idea that this land will always be a family farm.”

Keeping his family’s Salem County farm intact had been a dream of Jeffrey Harris, 40, since he was a small boy.

“There really is a value in having and preserving this open space for future generations,” said Harris, who recently added his Mill Hollow Farm to the preserved farmland list.

Camera icon ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Jeffrey Harris lives on the farm his great-grandfather bought in 1931. 

His great-grandfather bought the 100-acre property, on Route 49 in Quinton Township, in 1931 and operated a grain farm there on which Harris’ grandfather grew up. Harris himself was raised about 10 miles from the farm, but always wanted to live there and bought property about 12 years ago from his family and resides there now.

Educated as a botanist, Harris works with his family operating a property-management and  landscaping business. He doesn’t personally farm the property, but leases the land to other farmers who grow soybeans and other grain crops on the land.

Harris’ deal was a little trickier than most: Besides farmland, the property contained 18 acres of forested riparian buffer lands (a forest area with a wetlands component), according to Sandy Perry, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Through a unique partnership between the NJCF and the William Penn Foundation, a private Philadelphia philanthropic foundation, the vast majority of the land has been preserved for agriculture, while the permanent conservation of the forested buffer has been accomplished, according to New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher.

“This farm, with its agriculturally productive lands, also has a substantial wooded stream corridor,” Fisher said. “It was the landowner’s request that we help preserve both, under separate preservation easements.”

Harris said  applications for this type of farmland preservation usually take about 18 months, but in his case the process took double that time.

“But we kept at it, because we really felt preserving this piece of land was that important,” Harris said.

So now, about a quarter-mile off busy Route 49, behind Harris’ small farmhouse, sheds, and barn, lies a protected glade of woodland and fields that environmental officials say reduce stormwater flow. The land also helps filter agricultural water runoff into meandering Keasbey’s Creek, which runs into the Salem River and the Mannington Meadows tidal wetlands area -- whose marshes and wetlands are considered nationally significant habitats for the American bald eagle and numerous species of waterfowl and migratory birds.

“This groundbreaking project shows the promise of innovative public-private partnerships in protecting both drinking water and economic opportunity for farmers,”said Peter Howell, vice president of the Open Space Institute, which worked with the NJCF and the William Penn Foundation to provide some of the funding needed to complete the Mill Hollow Farms deal.