This Little Piggy Went to Trenton….

A hugely misguided attempt to eliminate the Department of Agriculture is the spark which has lit an angry fire which took over West State street recently as an unlikely combination of farmers with goats, pigs, tractors, and horses, CWA Local 1034 union members, labor leaders and politicians joined forces at one big statehouse rally to keep the “Garden” in the ‘Garden State’. One ‘Future Farmer of America’ student held a piglet donning a t-shirt that read “Butcher me, not the Department of Agriculture.” Another held a piglet adorned with a shirt which read “Cut the Pork, not Agriculture.”

Eliminating the Department of Agriculture (NJDA) does not make sense and Governor Corzine should reverse course. The agriculture and food complex is one of New Jersey's largest industries, and at $82 billion dollars, follows only pharmaceuticals and tourism in the economic benefits it brings to New Jersey. The Agriculture department is dominantly federally funded, with only $26.7 million of its $354 million budget coming from the state. Closing the department, which efficiently and effectively serves that industry, fails to save significant, if any, money.

Closing the doors of the NJDA sends the terrible and exceptionally disrespectful message to the farming community that they are an anachronism and it will drive the development of cherished open space. New Jersey has invested more than a billion dollars in farmland preservation over the past 25 years with farms now representing half of the remaining open space in our state. Minimizing agriculture’s stature or importance by eliminating the agency which the farming community relies on will drive more “asset rich and income poor” farmers to ‘throw in the trowel’ and sell off their ‘open spaces’ to developers. Keeping farms operating as farms is critical to maintaining open space and improving the quality of life for all NJ citizens. Less farms equals more development equals lower home values and higher property taxes for all.

Destroying the Agriculture department will endanger an industry which contributes several billion dollars a year to our state’s economy, only to save a few hundred thousand dollars. Closing the NJDA imperils federal funding and grants to numerous well-run programs at the agency. And critically, it jeopardizes services that protect the public health, such as food and meat inspection, and monitoring of public health issues such as the avian “bird” flu.

Cutting and pasting Agriculture’s successful ‘functions’ will be destructive, not productive. The Department of Agriculture is a small 260-person agency but it has wide ranging responsibilities including agricultural advocacy, animal health inspections, plant disease control, soil conservation and environmental programs, fertilizer testing, farmland preservation, child and school nutrition programs and securing federal USDA grant funding, protects New Jersey from invasive plants and pests, inspects nurseries, manages programs that feed schoolchildren, distributes surplus federal foods to needy citizens, conserves soil and water resources, promotes the state's commercial fishing industry, oversees the state's organic farms, and administers the complete program of agriculture, food and natural resource education. These programs are interdependent and many rely on the umbrella of an Agriculture entity to be able to continue to receive federal or grant funds. Tacking on the sophisticated equine program onto one in another agency which licenses cats and dogs will simply not work

Agriculture staffers who work directly with the farm community have built one-on-one relationships with the farmers and constituents they serve. Other programs, like the hugely successful Jersey Fresh program, have staff with twenty-year long first-name relationships with produce buyers and supermarket retailers. Their efforts cannot simply be easily duplicated in another agency. The Jersey Fresh staff personally visit more than 700 supermarkets each summer to market Jersey Fresh produce and provide produce managers with point of sale materials to keep the program alive and they set up mutually beneficial working relationships between farmers and chefs. Agriculture staffers have also worked hard to develop the agri-tourism industry which contributes at least $56 million directly to our state’s economy.

The public may indeed be clamoring for ‘cuts’ but responsible leadership requires the Governor and the Legislature to present a budget, including one with cuts, that actually makes sense. The unwarranted closing of treasured state parks, the elimination of good government agencies like Agriculture and Commerce, and layoffs of state workers for the sake of a head count fail to save real dollars. These cuts will, however, have seriously harmful effects on the workers who will face unemployment, on the middle class in our state that use the parks for pleasure, on the farming community and the public generally. The unintended (or intended) negative consequences of such politically motivated cuts, will far outweigh any short term ‘savings’. This little piggy should just stay home.

This Little Piggy Went to Trenton….