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Municipal planners, farmers working together

Local food boom increases demand.Expanding the pool of farmers ‘something that takes time.’

By Tamara Scully
AFP Correspondent

Article from

Lambertville — A small group of farmers and agricultural professionals descended here to talk shop with a group of gathered Hunterdon County Planning Board and Environmental Commission members from various municipalities.
The roundtable was intended to spotlight the reality of present-day small farming in New Jersey and to emphasis that agriculture is a major factor in designing sustainable communities.

With the assistance of the non-profit Association of New Jersey Environmental Commission (ANJEC), a diverse panel of small farmers and others involved in local agriculture were able to share their first-hand knowledge of issues involved with growing local food with the people on the front lines of preserving natural resources and building sustainable communities.

One way in which farmers contribute to a healthy environment is by adapting practices that are beneficial to wildlife, as well as to the farmer.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is on the forefront of this approach, with information and access to a wide variety of conservation programs in which farmers can participate and receive monetary benefits.
Evan Madlinger, who is an NRCS biologist, talked to the group about the benefits of establishing warm season grasses, which are native to New Jersey, as opposed to the traditional cold-season grasses now grown for hay.
The cold-season grasses are not native, require vast amounts of fertilizer and inputs to grow well here and do not provide secure habitat for native animal species, as their life cycle is in opposition to the needs of the animals. Traditional cold-season grasses are cut for hay during the nesting season of grassland birds.

Warm-season grasses, on the other hand, are not cut for hay until the late summer, when the birds are no longer nesting, avoiding the destruction of the bird population.

Warm season hay is as nutritionally dense, needs significantly less fertilizer or water and is able to capture about 80 percent of the sun’s energy, as opposed to the 15-percent utilization rate of cold season grasses.

These grasses, which include Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, Broomsedge and Indiangrass, also form deep root systems that efficiently filter out impurities, prevent erosion and provide reliable summer pasture as they grow best in the warm summer months, when cool season grasses die off. They also do not fall over in winter, providing vertical habitat.

Native grasses are now being planned by many farmers, benefitting the ecosystem and also providing a income for the farmer — in feed hay as well as in biofuel — and NRCS has resources available to assist more farmers in the seeding and establishment of the grasses, which are self-sustaining after about three years.

“This is a viable crop,” Madlinger said, which has pretty impressive yields of four tons an acre in Hunterdon County.
As a biofuel, two acres of warm season grasses can heat a 2,000 square foot home. The grasses can be made into pellets, just like wood pellets, he said.

Another example of the communion of environmental concerns and farming came in the shape of the purchase by the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance (HLTA) of the Dvoor Farm in Raritan Township in 1996.

The 40-acre farm with numerous outbuildings and a historic 1790s farmhouse was purchased by the HLTA with the initial intention of using it as a performing arts center, said Catherine Suttle.

When feasibility studies cautioned against the purchase, the HLTA was at a loss for a use for the farm, until they came to the realization that this historic farmland should continue to be used in a way beneficial to local agriculture.
The first step in that process was to develop a viable farmers’ market for the site.

As the HLTA has discovered, markets aren’t the quick panacea to uniting farmers and consumers, but just one portion of the solution, and come with many of their own complications.

As they have become more aware of the importance of local farming, the HLTA has revised the master plan for the Dvoor Farm.

“In recent years, we’ve realized that preserving farmland is only a part of what is important to help make farming viable in the county,” Suttle said of the HLTA’s new vision.

Organic farmer Mike Rassweiler spoke of his efforts to make a viable living off of his North Slope Farm, just a few miles away from downtown Lambertville, and to create a farm that was sustainable economically while “reliably producing high quality product” without damaging the health of the environment.

Rassweiler has posted the bottom-line dollar figures for his farm investment on his Web site, so that those not versed in the economic realities of farming can experience the issues a small New Jersey farm faces.

“The community of New Jersey is not eating from New Jersey,” Rassmeiler said. “Every dollar that gets incorporated into development needs to get a dollar devoted to agriculture.”

Agriculture serves the community, he said, and every new development should have a farm attached to provide local food to the community.

Rassmeiler said he feels that the investment of private capital into small farming is needed, and he is working to create a small farm model that would encourage this investment, with standards of practice and measurable, successful outcomes to demonstrate how a small farm can become economically and environmentally profitable.
Several other farmers also gave presentations, focusing on sustaining our communities through sustainable farming.
Farmer Roger Locandro, who is also involved with his town’s environmental commission, said that as a farmer, he strives to make “a better imprint on our world, on our community,” and to “bring a voice of agriculture to our environmental commission.”

The round table participants posed insightful questions, and paved the way for further discussion on the means of incorporating farming into the plans of municipalities — beyond land preservation, and into the nitty-gritty of keeping farmers farming and providing food directly to communities.

Environmental commissioners were left with thought-provoking ideas on means of incorporating farming as an overall part of the environmental resource planning for municipalities. While many ideas and topics for future discussion arose, participants were left with the underlying, unresolved issue.

Can municipal leaders work to address the real needs of small farming enterprises and incorporate provisions for farming into the master plans, prevent the loss of prime land, make it more economically feasible for farmers to farm and create communities that can feed themselves?

It is in addressing this issue that the common ground upon which the environmental commissioners and the local agricultural community can unite is found.

These two groups, working together, can help to ensure that agricultural land is not only preserved, but also utilized to the best of its ability to provide sustenance to the local community in the form of food and renewable energy while providing ecosystem benefits such as fertile, healthy soils, wildlife habitat and water buffer and enhancements and to provide a profitable living for the farmers and farm workers who bring it all together.

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