Monday, April 07, 2008

New Jersey Governor Proposes Closing NJ Dept of Ag

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine has proposed closing the NJ State Department of Agriculture. Only Rhode Island and Alaska do not have state department of Agriculture. The move would save $500,000, but is facing stiff opposition.

The work of the Agriculture Department includes preserving farmland, expanding export opportunities and promoting locally grown produce under the “Jersey Fresh” brand. The department also promotes the commercial fishing industry, sponsors programs to protect poultry and livestock from disease and creates breeder programs for the equine industry.

Corzine told reporters that he heard the protesters and tractors rumbling on West State Street outside his office. “I understand that farmers are angry,” he said. “I understand, too, that some may choose only to see irony in my proposal to cut the Department of Agriculture in the Garden State. That said, the taxpayers of New Jersey are deeply concerned with the cost of government and demand that we set our priorities to deliver services efficiently.”

But Richard Nieuwenhuis, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of farmers, said the savings would be miniscule since the Agriculture Department’s $9.2 million budget represents fewer than 1 percent of the $33 billion state budget.

“With the costs so small and the potential savings so limited, why would Gov. Corzine so casually toss away the state’s cabinet-level advocate for this major industry and land use?” asked Nieuwenhuis. “The farming industry relies on the help and leadership of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and its secretary.”

Rutgers University economist Joe Seneca said the agency “is not a department known for bloat or inefficiencies, and it has a very definable task that people identify with. It’s been well-led, its work force is highly professional and they serve a respected constituency. Closing the Agriculture Department has been proposed in the past and it has been unsuccessful, and I suspect at the end of the day, it will be difficult to accomplish.”

Many farmers at the rally said the department touched them personally. Joe Cichowski, who owns the 37-acre Cichowski Farms in Somerset, said the department helped him buy his farm three years ago after it went into foreclosure under the previous owner. “They have always been there for me,” Cichowski said. “When I have issues and call them, they jump on it fast.”

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