By Chris Sturgis

Special to the Times

Old soil, new hands: Saved farmland awaits auction

When William Pettit and his wife Dorothy first began farming nearly 58 years ago, there were close to 400 dairy farms in Burlington County.

Today, there are three.

While that number may seem disheartening, a symbol of simpler times come and gone, an upcoming auction of preserved county farmland seeks to put land back in the hands of farmers while keeping it safe from development.

David Gard/For The TimesThe C. Petit farm in Pemberton is up for auction.

Pettit, 83, a longtime farmer and former mayor of Springfield, first encouraged one of his sons to sell his land almost 20 years ago and has recently followed suit, selling a 62-acre parcel across town from the farm where he currently works and resides.

“I was 65 and in the mood to slow up, and I told him if he wanted to stay in the dairy business he better go where the cows are,” Pettit said. His son moved to Minnesota, opening a dairy operation there, and a second Pettit son followed last year.

David Gard/For The TimesThe C. Petit farm in Pemperton.

Now, the 62-acre Pettit Sr. farm in Juliustown is on the auction block, available to any buyer who wants to establish a farming operation on preserved land. It’s one of eight farms in all, just east of McGuire Air Force Base, that are being offered for sale.

The farms range from 36 to a whopping 202 acres, and all were bought and preserved by the county in the last two and a half years. Some were bought from developers, others from families or aging farmers looking to get out of the difficult business of farming, but all include deed restrictions that require the land to be used strictly for agricultural purposes.

“All of these properties were at various risk of being developed for non-agricultural purposes,” said Dan Kennedy, the Burlington County Farmland Preservation Program coordinator. “Our goal is to have agricultural land remain in Burlington County to help retain the farming industry.”

As the average age of farmers creeps higher and the amount of land available diminishes, causing farmers to retire or move to the less-congested Midwest, as Pettit’s son did, more and more land is being freed up for county preservation. Burlington County alone already has more than 50,000 preserved acres, with more being added every day, as indicated by the auction.

Realtor Max Spann, whose company, Max Spann Real Estate and Auction, is overseeing the land sale, says Pettit’s story is a common one.

“Usually the motivation for people selling the farms is they’re retiring or they may be looking to move their farming operation west so they can have a larger operation. There’s a variety of reasons,” he said.

“A lot of them sell it to the county rather than the developer because a lot of them have been there for years and can’t stand to see the farmland turned into houses,” he continued. “That’s a very big motivator.”

The auction will take place Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Rutgers EcoComplex in Bordentown. There, attendees can bid on the eight sprawling Burlington County properties, including Pettit’s former acreage and a 120-acre plot complete with picturesque farmhouse, barns and silos once owned by his son, Chris.

“By transferring these farms back to private ownership, the county will get these lands into the hands of farmers who can invest and sustain these farms at no future cost to taxpayers,” said county Freeholder Bill Haines.

There are more farms in New Jersey than 40 years ago. But a U.S. Agriculture Department census finds Garden State farmers have less land to work. The department’s 2007 Census shows that between 2002 and 2007 farm acreage in New Jersey dropped 9 percent, from 805,682 acres to 733,450 acres in 2007.

Burlington, Sussex, and Hunterdon counties saw the largest declines. However, acreage increased in Atlantic, Salem, Passaic and Essex counties.

In 2007, Burlington had 922 farms, with the average size being 93 acres, according to the census. Mercer had 311 farms, averaging 70 acres each; Monmouth, 932 farms, averaging 47 acres; and Hunterdon, 1,623 farms, averaging 62 acres.

The Burlington farmland preservation program has headed off much housing construction on rolling fields that developers might have peppered with driveways and lawn sprinklers.

One such high-risk property was the former Bell Farm in North Hanover, whose land was slated to be developed into 28 houses. The county promptly stepped in and purchased the land from developers in an attempt to keep clear the buffer between nearby McGuire Air Force Base and local neighborhoods.

“The military is always concerned about having neighbors near the bases because of complaints of aircraft flying overhead,” said Spann.

Kennedy estimates that the county has spent close to $16 million purchasing farmland directly from farmers and developers as part of an open space fund approved by county taxpayers. Spann said farmers selling their lands often prefer to sell directly to the county, so they don’t have to labor through the lengthy process of preserving the land themselves.

The auction is expected to raise $5 million, all of which will be funneled back into the farmland preservation fund to purchase more farms and protect more land.

Spann is unsure of how much money the properties will fetch in an unstable real estate market, but at a 2007 auction, farms were purchased at a cost of $3,500 to $10,000 per acre. Spann, who has sold more than 5,000 acres of preserved farmland in the past five years or so, says variables include whether the property includes dwellings like houses and barns, where the farm is located and soil quality.

Potential buyers may be farmers looking to add to their extensive land holdings or buyers hoping to start a horse or tree nursery operation.

Pettit says he doesn’t care who buys his former land, as long as it continues to be used for farming. Although he and his wife still live on the original farm they’ve owned since 1951, he said it’s always hard to part with the fields he worked for so many years.

“If you want to know the truth, it was very tough for me to give it up, but age dominates me a little bit,” he said. “I’m still active and I still have farm equipment. I keep at it, and I enjoy life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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