Cowtown defies modern stereotypes. Founded in 1929 and run by five generations of the Harris family, the weekly rodeo show boasts everything from bull riding, to mutton busting and attracts thousands to rural Salem County all summer long.
“You know, no one would believe that the longest active rodeo in the United States of America is in New Jersey,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“Such an iconic property. And I always liked the slogan, ‘Cowtown: Often imitated, never equaled,’” said Greg Romano, assistant director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Wednesday, Cowtown’s owners and advocates, helped by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, defied another modern trend by preserving 375 acres of pastureland that surrounds Cowtown. It’s been under constant pressure from developers.
“You drive around here, and you see houses and houses and houses going up everywhere, and developments,” explained Katy Harris Griscom, whose family owns the Cowtown Rodeo.
“Whatever ridiculous price you’d put on a piece of ground, somebody would sign a contract. And there’s been a lot of temptations over the years,” said Cowtown owner, Grant Harris. “And what we do wouldn’t happen without this land. The land is the key ingredient for our family’s success over generations.”
The Harris family pastures 100 rodeo horses and 300 to 500 cattle, and they’d retain ownership under the agreement. The $2.5 million easement restricts the land’s use to grazing only, paid for with money from private foundations, and through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Grant for grasslands.
“It has to be well taken care of grassland, and it’s also a benefit to the upland grass birds that live in this area,” said Carrie Lindig, state conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It protects active farmland. It protects critical land for endangered species. It protects a cultural heritage and viability of farming in this area, and it helps protect clean water by keeping the land undeveloped,” said Bill Rawlyk, Middle Atlantic field coordinator at the Open Space Initiative.
It’s the first federal Grasslands Conservation project in New Jersey, but it’s also saving a ranching rodeo family’s way of life.
“What’s it worth to preserve a family legacy, you know?” said Grant Harris.
Cowtown’s opening day is May 26 — that’s when all will get back to work. The season runs through September, and thanks to the conservation agreement, Cowtown will not be riding into the stereotypical Western sunset anytime soon.