By Lauren Wanko
Farmer Pete Johnson weeds around his new apple trees– planted on the 315 acre preserved farm he and his brother purchased last year.
“We both have children that are interested in agriculture, so next generation and needs a place to spread their wings,” said Johnson.
The Johnson’s preserved their other Medford Farm in 2002 under the state’s Farmland Preservation Program.
“When we preserve a farm, we are not buying the land, we’re just putting a restriction on the development of the land. So the farmer maintains ownership of the property. He just can’t develop it,” said Burlington County Department of Resource Conservation Director Mary Pat Robbie.
Landowners can sell their development rights to the State Agriculture Development Committee, County Ag. Development Boards, Municipalities or non-profits. After the sale, the farmland must be maintained for agricultural uses– even if it’s sold, the land remains privately owned.
“Part of the program is to really make it easier for new farmers to purchase the land because if you were buying land and it had all the developmental rights on it, it would be pretty darn expensive,” said Robbie.
Statewide there are more than 212,000 acres of farmland that have been permanently protected under Under the state’s Farmland Preservation Program.
“And it’s one of the leading programs in the county. The people of New Jersey wisely recognize the opportunity for open space and for farmland preservation as a way of life they hold dear,” said Secretary of NJ Department of Agriculture Douglas Fisher.
Last November a ballot question was overwhelming approved by voters to use money collected from the Corporate Business Tax to preserve open space, farmland and historic sites, among other things.
“What question number two did is declare a dedicated taxpayer funded source for the farmland preservation year after year,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s new farm, now called Johnson’s Locust Hall Farm, was preserved by the previous owner.
“The major incentive is financial because what your paid for is the development value of the property. What you’re let with is your farm and its agricultural value as a farm and the buildings it has on it,” said Johnson.
“It’s an opportunity for that farmer, that farming family to reinvest that back into the property to expand operations,” said Fisher.
That’s exactly what Johnson and his brother did at Johnson’s Corner Farm in Medford.
“It takes the pressure off the developer banging at your door after a difficult year in agriculture and that starts to look pretty good, but that is the final crop when you get into housing,” said Johnson.
This third generation farmer plans to expand his agri-tourism business here. Robbie insists residents benefit too because the program keeps the tax rate stable.
“The county maintains certain services and those services can be managed better if we know we have these large blocks of farmland,” said Robbie.
The Burlington County Agricultural Development Board and the freeholders typically receive anywhere from 10 to 15 applications from farms each year from farmers looking to preserve their farmland. The application process opens later this month.