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Family vegetable farm preserved in Upper Pittsgrove


UPPER PITTSGROVE TWP. - A 90-acre vegetable and grain farm in the same family for nearly a century has been permanently preserved by New Jersey Conservation Foundation and its partners.

New Jersey Conservation Foundation recently helped Salem County purchase the development rights from brothers Robert and George Kenneth Harrell. The farm will remain in the Harrell family and is now permanently restricted to agriculture.

"We can sell it to another farmer but we can't sell it for building lots. I didn't want to do that anyway," said Robert Harrell, who has fond memories of growing up on the farm purchased in 1922 by his grandfather, Tilson Harrell, and later taken over by his father, Henry Grady Harrell.

Harrell recalls his father using a horse and wagon to move young tomato plants from cold frames into fields and, later, cutting the back off of an old Model A Ford to turn it into a pickup truck. For many years, he added, most of the tomatoes grown on the farm were sold to the Campbell's Soup factory in Camden.

Located on County Route 648, the Harrell farm currently grows tomatoes, sweet corn, watermelons, cantaloupe and wheat. Its soils are 100 percent prime, statewide and unique, the top classifications for agricultural productivity.

About 39 of the farm's acres are wooded, including a riparian forest at the start of Kettle Run, a pristine headwater tributary to Oldmans Creek. The forest canopy provides habitat for migrating songbirds, including hummingbirds, one of Harrell's favorites.

Preservation Partnership

Funding to preserve the Harrell farm came from a Salem County grant from the State Agriculture Development Committee, and New Jersey Conservation Foundation's grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Upper Pittsgrove Township also contributed.

Upper Pittsgrove Mayor Jack Cimprich, who serves on New Jersey Conservation Foundation's Board of Trustees, described the Harrell farm as "excellent farmland" whose preservation helped the township reach a milestone of preserving over 10,000 acres of farmland.

"Surrounded on three sides by other preserved farms, it is part of a continuous swath of preserved land from our northern border with Gloucester County all the way to our southern border with Cumberland County," said Cimprich.

The Harell farm is near several others in Upper Pittsgrove that New Jersey Conservation Foundation helped preserve, including the Kern, Sottile and Tracy Strang farms.

"The SADC was pleased to partner in the preservation of this working farm as part of our ongoing cooperative efforts to permanently protect important farmland and keep agriculture growing strong in Upper Pittsgrove," said Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher.

"The Natural Resources Conservation Service is very excited to be a part of acquiring an easement on the Harrell property," said Carrie Lindig, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "The soils on this farm are classified as Prime, Statewide and Unique, and being contiguous to other protected farms, make this a valuable farm to protect."

"Salem County is the Garden Spot of the Garden State," said Freeholder Lee Ware, Chairman of the Transportation, Agriculture Committee. "Our farmland and open space is a cherished resource for the County of Salem. Many people come to Salem County because of our open space and stay because of the same reason."

'I'd rather be farming'

Robert Harrell said he loved farming but eventually took a job driving trucks because the farm wasn't large enough to support two families. "If I had my druthers, I'd rather be farming than anything," he said.

Robert and his brother are now retired and Robert's oldest daughter, Robin, plans to take over family farm operations. A nephew is currently farming part of the land, growing vegetables to sell at a local farmers market. Wheat was grown on the farm earlier this season and those fields are now being planted in cover crops to enrich the soil.

A forest stewardship plan has been developed to protect the water, soil, plants and wildlife of the forest - something that was important to the Harrell family.

"It's full of animals," said Harrell, who has spotted deer, foxes, rabbits, turkeys, pheasants and squirrels in the woods and families of geese in the farm's irrigation ponds.

Cimprich noted that New Jersey is the most densely populated state. "Preserving farms like the Harrell farm helps to maintain a better quality of life for everyone by preventing more traffic congestion and pollution, by reducing the need for more services that drive up taxes, and by providing recharge areas so we don't run out of water," Cimprich said.

"Farms like this are critical if New Jersey is to continue to be able to feed itself in the future. It helps ensure that the businesses that farming relies on - tractor dealers, fertilizer dealers, produce buyers, etc. - can count on a permanent demand for their services. And, because the landowner has been paid for the development rights, the land is more affordable to our farmers allowing them to be more competitive and economically viable. We can trust that New Jersey will remain the "Garden State."

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