A farmer stood in a muddy field in Gloucester County and wondered if he would make it through the year. A large vegetable farmer in Salem County said his future in farming is about “50/50” right now.
In Cumberland County, where the Shepherd family has lived for nearly 350 years, longtime farmer Tom Shepherd is selling 640 of his 1,500 acres to stem the bleeding.
“When you’re losing $1 million a year, it’s not fun anymore,” said Shepherd, 68.
The number of working farms in the United States has been steadily declining for nearly a century. According to the USDA, there were 6.8 million farms in the country in 1935 and 2.01 million in 2021. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, as of 2021, there were an estimated 52,700 farms covering 7.3 million acres in Pennsylvania. The state has lost thousands of farms since 2010. New Jersey has 9,900 farms, up from 10,300 in 2009.
At the same time, the population is growing and with it the demand for food. Farmers bemoaning the cost of supplies and price volatility is nothing new, but in 2022, with gas prices skyrocketing, supply chain issues, wage increases, fertilizer and even cardboard, and increased competition beyond US borders, the specter of For Sale ” signs haunt the Garden State.
“This year, the threat is real,” said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. “You are facing extraordinary and unprecedented costs.”
In May, some New Jersey asparagus growers didn’t harvest their crops after the price retailers were willing to pay fell below production costs. Farmers say the drop happened just after Mother’s Day. As flower imports from Peru and Mexico fell after the holidays, growers there started shipping more asparagus, driving down prices.
Michelle Infante-Casella, a Gloucester County agricultural agent and professor at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, posted a photo of an unharvested asparagus field to Facebook amid the falling market and wrote a dire warning about the state of agriculture. Her post has been shared nearly 3,000 times.
“We now import almost 50 percent of fresh fruit and vegetables.”
“If this continues, the American farm will no longer exist,” wrote Infante-Casella. “Then Americans will become even more dependent on foreign food. We now import almost 50 percent of fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Undoing this is not easy. The mechanics of capitalism require brokers and big grocery stores and big department stores to find the cheapest product to make the most profit. Many farmers say the simplest solution is for more consumers to demand that their fruit and vegetables are locally sourced. Rising inflation costs make that easier said than done.
“These big department stores don’t want to play nice with the local farmers,” said James Rambo, a fourth-generation farmer in Glassboro, Gloucester County.
Rambo said he’s considered not farming his 550 acres this year — and likely ever again — but has already signed contracts to hire temporary farm workers on H2A worker visas. He said many of those workers in Peru and Mexico were making less than $9 a day. He has to pay $15.54 an hour, along with lodging and transportation. This discrepancy helps these countries keep product costs lower.
“Take pumpkin, for example,” he said. “The chain stores sell them anywhere from $1.49 a pound to $2 a pound. Last week we farmers were getting between $3 and $6 a box for a 20 pound box.”
Rambo, who mainly grows tomatoes and peppers, said it costs about $8.50 for local farmers to produce a box of squash.
“That’s the truth, and that math doesn’t work for farmers,” he said. “Farmers are told what they get paid.”
Shepherd, who grows asparagus and other vegetables in Cumberland County, said fertilizer costs have increased “100 percent” and agreed with Rambo that farmers can’t set their own prices.
“All our costs are up. Everything,” he said. “But when I tell a buyer that my prices have to be 25% higher than last year, they say we’re crazy and go somewhere else.”
In Salem County, New Jersey’s most rural county, Brian Porch grows a little of everything on his 175-acre farm in Pedricktown. He is the president of the county agriculture committee and also believes consumers can drive the market for locally grown produce. Elected officials have tried to help, he said. Porch has spoken with State Senator Ed Durr, and his predecessor Steve Sweeney passed legislation in 2021 requiring products labeled “local” to be manufactured or grown in New Jersey.
“For better or for worse, this is all about capitalism,” he said. “This needs to change at the consumer level as more people demand American products.”
Furey, in an article he wrote for Ag Matters, said some farmers are trying to cut out middlemen and sell directly to the public through farmers’ markets and self-picked options. Infante-Casella believes that given the state of the economy, it will be difficult to break consumer spending habits.
“For better or for worse, this is all about capitalism.”
“The answer is there is no good answer because Americans are used to paying for cheap food, but to keep the American farmer we have to pay more,” she said. “You don’t want to be dependent on the rest of the world for food.”
Rambo, whose farmland sits just behind an ever-expanding Rowan University and new housing developments, said there’s always an option to cash out his land.
“When things are going well, no farmer thinks of selling. It’s in our blood,” he said. “I put in 102 hours last week and that doesn’t bother me. I just want to earn a few bucks and be a farmer. “