Thoughts on the Right to Farm Act & Agritourism In New Jersey
perspective of a vineyard
Outside of our kitchen windows, the Garden State has been transforming for many years, because local agriculture has been suffering for many years.
If New Jersey residents still want the farm-country landscape they cherished when they moved into the state, then they need to also stay educated as to what pressures farmers face today and what measures they’re taking to avoid collapsing into the compelling pressures of overdevelopment.
One of those vital measures is called agritourism - which is when farms partake in recreational and educational events hosted at their farms to promote their farm products and the entire farm experience.
From vineyards to orchards, stronger protections could secure the state’s delicate rural/suburban matrix and landscape, touching every NJ corner: every county, town, local community, neighborhood, backyard, household…dinner plate.
How is it possible that small farms, already against their odds battling a myriad of volatile industry undercurrents beyond their control, can also be so exposed and vulnerable to the whims of any neighbor down the road?
Why are honest, small businesses at the mercy of whatever random opinion, whatever random “neighbor” has? Or has of how we should run or not run our business for their own best perceived interests?
But just because someone (with, perhaps, a myriad of private interests on the table) claims that a neighboring farm is “dangerous” to the community does not automatically, as the words are uttered, raise it alive into an actual reality!
The burden of proof should lay on those who make the claims. They should be held accountable for their claims. And it should legally be their responsibility, time, and money that are spent proving their words are rooted in something more legitimate that hearsay.
It’s scary that a farm business could be legally strangled on unfounded, unproven claims for months, even years.
What type of support are NJ Townships offering some of their superstars of farming, eco-tourism, and local commerce? Inexcusable delays, questionable politics? Not good enough, New Jersey!
That’s exactly why The Right To Farm Act exists... “to provide a commercial farmer protection against municipal ordinances that unnecessarily constrain agricultural operations and against nuisance suits.”
Isn’t that so visibly the case? So visibly necessary?
NJ farmers have a right to the same farming and business practices that are evolving throughout the rest of the state, nation, and world.
Agritourism has proven to be a wonderful synergy between farming and recreation.
Studies made throughout the European Union have proven agritourism's effectiveness in sustaining farms and vineyards.
The findings were so conclusive, that the E.U. started programs to fund sustainable farming and agritourism practices throughout Europe - from Italy, to France, to Greece, to Portugal, to Germany...many farms and vineyards are taking advantage of these favorable policies to the benefit of all. (Examples.)
So too should the United States. So too should New Jersey!
Farms that have a truly viable financial future in New Jersey are those that incorporate the principles of agritourism into their business strategies, making it an essential priority for success.
Farms that successfully embrace agritourism as a means of brand identity and product promotion are at best offered “look the other way” political support from their Townships that the agritourism study refers to as a potential snake’s pit for future conflict.
This happens because Townships feel torn on how to categorize ‘farms’ that partake in ‘commercial’ activities.
"Farms are for soybeans. Commercial zones are for Walmart."
These archaic zoning definitions splice up our landscapes into violently segregated, color-coded blocks which stifles true community development and integration.
And they are brittle. They quickly snap under the reality of what’s happening in the farming and business worlds.
Lawmakers have the choice - to ignore global trends and beat farmers over the head with outdated policy, or embrace these win-win, progressive trends and make decisions in support of agritourism activities on farms.
I believe that Townships offer this type of “look the other way” support because they really do want thriving vineyards and farms:
There just are no easy legal protections and frameworks to snugly slip agritourism practices into, other than blanketing everything as monotone commercial, and so by stifling vineyards and farms with many completely unnecessary, burdensome, expensive hoops of fire that just might backfire in their costly process.
Could you imagine the disappointment of visiting a "rustic farm" for a bridal shower only to park in a blacktop parking lot with overhead lighting designed for a commercial mall along the Rt. 1 corridor?
Townships see that demanding such a thing is utter nonsense. But they can’t point to a law that says it's nonsense, so they must look the other way instead.
They don’t want to have to be the bad guys and suffocate farms like that, so things simply coast along without definition or intervention. That is, until someone cries wolf.
This is a classic case of when an industry (NJ farming) has evolved past what its current legal category recognizes and allows.
But life changes constantly, especially in today’s unpredictable world. That’s why those dusty law books need to be reviewed and revised – and often!
We farmers have to push for those new rights because they are so vitally necessary to our growth and survival.
The government doesn’t automatically know that. How could they? That’s we have to let them know. Inform them. Make a fuss. Show them what’s really at stake.
If there were better definitions, codes, and rules for us small NJ vineyards and farms, Townships would immediately approve of everything, because they wouldn’t feel exposed or defenseless in the process.
They’d just be comfortably “following procedures.” They wouldn’t be swimming in dangerous territory beyond their own power or expertise.
In short, they wouldn’t be sticking their necks out.
Nothing should hold Hopewell Valley Vineyards back from inviting many, many people for many, many, years to enjoy our award-winning wines, our atmosphere, and our hospitality.
All of which we’ve worked incredibly hard to offer.
All of which we feel incredibly proud to offer.
Nothing should hold any NJ vineyard from doing the same.
Nothing should further hold any NJ farm from doing the same.
We all have a rightful spot in the neighborhood, too.
And what we offer as local farmers to our local communities is truly amazing.
Think of what another housing development on Yard Road, or any NJ road, would undeniably, categorically produce in terms of traffic and neighborhood overcrowding if small farms folded due to intolerant policies...
Failing small farms, due to intolerant laws and insensitive bureaucrats, would be ecologically, and even socially, catastrophic for the entire state.
Because “a growing community” shouldn’t just mean population growth, with more houses mushrooming across old farm fields as is the visible scenario throughout much of New Jersey.
It must also include community maturation, diversification, and dynamism in order to be a healthy, positive, welcome type of growth.
Small farms that host events, like at vineyards, offer this type of much-needed recreational and educational diversification, and also helps keep us afloat.
As one HVV supporter perfectly expressed:
“Hopewell Valley Vineyards put Pennington on the map.”
On what map? The tourist map!
HVV, and other NJ wineries, become a cherished local attraction.
Winery visitors come to our vineyard from the local area as well as from Bucks County, Philadelphia, Northern Jersey, New York, and Delaware.
Try to squeeze out 1/100th of the same excitement about another neighborhood development instead!
Sometimes bureaucrats are so rigid in their attempts to 'uphold the law' - they fail to see how their erroneous thinking can effect the entire future of an entire industry.
Some say, “Well, the Township doesn’t stop you from still growing grapes, right? That’s all the Right To Farm cares about.”
I respond with this simple illustration:
It’s like saying to a theater director, “I’ll allow you to invest your money (and pay me through your taxes) to produce a great, fabulous, one-of-a-kind play, but now I won’t allow you to advertise that play or sell any tickets to the show.”
As a vineyard, we grow grapes to produce wine. We produce wine to sell wine. We host various events to sell our wine. The trio clicks together like a no-brainer, three-piece puzzle.
By the way, that’s called brand marketing.
Pepsi and Nascar have far less in common than do wine and weddings (an ancient pairing indeed), but obviously it’s a combo that sells for them, and so they do it.
Wine doesn’t sell wine. Events sell wine. Events are those long, sticky tentacles that slip out into the world to pull the right people onto our vineyard, at the right time.
Those events remind people that we’re quietly sitting on 46 Yard Road...
Because, seriously, how many times could we possibly make the announcement to our thousands of subscribers that just says,
“Hey everyone! Just checking in to remind y’all that we’re still a vineyard that sells wine in the dot-of-a-town called Pennington, in case you’re ever passing by this way?”
Doesn’t, “Live Jazz Music at Six This Friday on the Vineyard!” sound a little bit better?
Admit, A LOT better?
The events make it worth the drive for folks. The events build fond memories and loyal supporters of the vineyard. The events help people identify with our wines, with our vineyard, with our very family...
You can't get the same connection out of a $5 Merlot from Trader Joes...you need that human connection, and that's what we strive to provide our guests.
I hope that the agritourism study by Rutgers is taken seriously for its findings.
The conditions and conflicts facing NJ vineyards are flawlessly reflected by the study’s findings; a short list including:
But as much as the study acts as a great, objective laboratory window into Hopewell Valley Vineyards, it actually is a fundamentally larger, grander window into today’s agriculture industry in New Jersey as a whole.
And the verdict is clear:
...if small NJ farms are to survive in today’s acidic markets, they must specialize their products, and sell directly to consumers by inviting visitors onto their farms for an array of creative hostings of events.
They must create true, lasting friendships with their customers.
We must first fully digest this fact, and then the path towards protecting the future of NJ farms will become an easier, tastier journey indeed.
I ask our local and state governments to think holistically, progressively, and positively, and to stand for the promise of agriculture’s stability by fully recognizing and supporting various forms of agritourism in New Jersey.
Please help us herald in brighter prospects for our state’s farms and agrarian heritage by introducing better legal frameworks for their protection and for the continuation of our absolutely necessary 21st century farming practices!
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