New Rutgers program hopes to grow a new generation of NJ farmers
The average age of a New Jersey farmer is now approaching 60, and while that in itself is not a problem, there are concerns over whether a next generation is budding within the statewide industry.
Central to the issue is that some historically family-run farms may not hold the interest of younger relatives, who have a bigger menu of career choices to select from than ever before.
"It's not necessarily as attractive an option for some, though we do have farms still where the kids are taking over for the parents," Brendon Pearsall, program coordinator of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County, said.
To address the potential shortage, Pearsall and Rutgers are launching a timely program called "RU Ready to Farm?," aiming to capitalize on residents' post-COVID interest in where their food is coming from, and doing their own small-scale growing.
Farming is a bigger business than that, but it's still not "big business," according to Pearsall, and the profession holds much (Jersey) fresh intrigue for those looking to commit to it as a career, including an increasing reliance on new technologies like drones, GPS tracking, and hydroponics.
"What we're really looking at is a different type of food system and different approaches to farming that are more viable than they've ever been: urban agriculture, small plot, part-time farmers," Pearsall said.
Still, there is much to be learned aside from how to grow crops and produce food. Pearsall said in addition to physical labor, farmers need to develop knowledge in the areas of marketing, managing, sales, and negotiation.
"We have a lot of preserved farmland in New Jersey, which is great, but we need to make sure that we have farmers who are trained and able to work that land in the future," he said. "What we're really trying to do is bridge the middle and combine business and technical knowledge with hands-on experience."
RU Ready to Farm? is being made possible through a three-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, but Pearsall wants to see the program sustained past that mark.
To that end, he urges anyone interested in learning more, getting involved, or donating to check out the program's website.