Local officials leave millions intended to preserve farmland unspent, auditor finds

By: - September 12, 2023 7:04 am

Municipalities and counties in New Jersey preserve, on average, less than 5,600 acres a year — not enough if the state wants to hit its goal of preserving 550,000 acres statewide to protect agriculture's future, a new audit has found. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey municipalities and counties have failed to spend $50 million in state grants budgeted for farmland preservation, endangering the state’s goal to protect more than a half million acres from development, the state auditor found in a new report.

The pace of preservation has been so poky that it will take New Jersey 54 years to hit its 550,000-acre target, Auditor David J. Kaschak found.

State lawmakers passed the farmland retention law in 1981 in response to mounting farmland losses statewide. In the four decades since, about 2,800 farms covering almost 248,000 acres have been preserved as of June 2022, with the state covering $1.2 billion of that cost and counties, municipalities, and federal authorities paying out $649 million, according to the audit.

In recent years, the pace of acquisition has averaged less than 5,600 acres a year, Kaschak found.

The audit comes eight months after New Jersey farmers asked state lawmakers for help, saying competition with farmers in other states, high costs, hungry deer, and a shortage of qualified workers threaten their survival.

New Jersey’s agricultural industry is among the country’s smallest, with fewer than 10,000 farms producing about $1.5 billion in revenue annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The farmland preservation program plays a role in protecting farming as a livelihood, with grants distributed to fund soil and water conservation projects on farmland and to buy development easements. The grants allow landowners to keep their land as long as they agree to development restrictions and continue their agricultural use.

About 2,800 farms covering almost 248,000 acres in New Jersey have been preserved since state lawmakers passed a farm preservation law in 1981. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Kaschak urged the State Agriculture Development Committee, which oversees the farmland preservation program, to tweak its cost-sharing formula, which hasn’t been updated since 2007, so that farmers have to bear less of a financial burden to participate.

He also recommended that the committee redistribute money from municipalities and counties that are slow to spend it to those that spent it all and want more.

Susan E. Payne, the committee’s executive director, largely agreed with Kaschak’s findings, pointing to legislation already under consideration in Trenton that would establish a new process for determining the value of farmland and development easements to make preservation more attractive to farmers.

She said the committee once reallocated unused funds from those who didn’t spend them to those who did, but quit doing that because of its “punitive” perception. Instead, she said, the committee does not increase allocations to municipalities and counties slow to use them.

Despite the audit, New Jersey does better at farmland preservation than most other states, ranking fourth nationally in how many agricultural acres it has protected, according to a 2021 report from the American Farmland Trust.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.