Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who Needs Farmers?

By Alan Caruba

In a bygone era, New Jersey was so famous for its farms that it was nicknamed “The Garden State.” Today, Governor Jon Corzine is in charge. He is a zillionaire who first bought the job of Senator and, grown bored with that, bought his current position by virtue of being able to outspend any Republican opponent no matter how qualified.

Gov. Corzine has purposed, among a number of other ideas that have seriously annoyed taxpayers, that the State Department of Agriculture be eliminated as a way to reduce the obscene debt that has accrued from a succession of previous governors who could not see their way to actually taking an axe to an annually bloated budget.

Apparently the Governor has no idea the role that agriculture plays in New Jersey. That’s not surprising because, other than believing the sun rises and sets on the civil service unions, he doesn’t seem to know much about the State.

For example, New Jersey currently is home to 9,800 farms, comprising some 790,000 acres. In a State where open space is a valuable commodity, that’s 17% of the State’s landmass or 50% of the remaining open space. Fully 1,646 farms have joined a Farmland Protection program to insure that whole State doesn’t get paved over and turned into a parking lot.

Before you think that farming in New Jersey is a quaint leftover from the past, it’s worth noting that agriculture contributes $924 million in cash receipts to the State’s economy. When you add in a food and agricultural industry involving processing, retail sales, and the 60,000 jobs involved, you’re talking about a significant piece of the economy.

Still, despite the fact that the Department of Agriculture, a vital state agency that represents farming and ranching interests, only represents $10 million of an appalling $33.5 billion total State budget, Gov. Corzine wants to “save” that money, perhaps to transfer it to one of the State’s decaying urban centers that seem to suck up all the spare money while small towns and suburbs that vote Republican never seem to get anything but a few scraps.

The State government employs a total of over 68,000 people. That’s a lot of people to service just over 8 million citizens, many of whom are packing up and leaving thanks to some of the highest property taxes, sales taxes, and income taxes in the nation. They are moving, well, anywhere else except maybe Connecticut or California. The Department of Agriculture employs just 245 people or 0.004 percent of the total number of civil servants.

But, seriously, who needs a Department of Agriculture anyway? Unless, of course, you want to keep the animals safe from all manner of infectious diseases that seem to make it halfway around the globe in no time flat these days. Love Mad Cow Disease? Avian Bird Influenza? Mad about the Gypsy Moth or Asian Longhorned Beetle? The NJDA keeps a watchful eye out for threats to our food supply.

Getting rid of the Department of Agriculture might be noticed by the 144,742 school kids that receive nutritious breakfasts and lunches or the 27,382 students provided with milk every day.

The NJDA is involved in a lot of programs that don’t hit the front pages, but are vital for the welfare of children, the less fortunate who visit soup kitchens and pantries where surplus federal food is distributed. Then there’s the conservation of soil and water resources and protecting farmland from development while, at the same time, expanding export markets for fresh and processed products. The Department also promotes New Jersey’s fishing industry.

The recent largest recall of beef products by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company of Chino, California, is being overseen by, guess who? The State Department of Agriculture, working with the U.S.D.A.

Farm state governors understandably have a far better grasp of the role of agriculture, not just in their own states, but nationally. Agriculture is a major contributor to the nation’s economy, even if it has been distorted of late with an idiotic Congressional mandate to turn corn and soy into ethanol, thus requiring that we actually burn a huge portion of our food supply for no good reason.

It is not too much to expect New Jersey’s Governor to grasp the important role that agriculture plays in a state better known for its shore, its sports teams, and the now departed Miss America contest. What we need is some fiscal sanity. What we got was a succession of governors who borrowed and borrowed and borrowed. Now we have one who wants to financially penalize everyone who hasn’t left already.

So, while you’re at it, Governor Corzine, why do we need that dopey “Garden State” moniker? Why not something like the “Tolls On Every Highway State”? Or just the “I Don’t Have a Clue how to Run a State, State?”

Editorial Note: My thanks to William V. Griffin, president of the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture, for the statistical data cited above.

No comments: