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Land preservation helps safeguard family's farm and rodeo traditions

374 acres of Cowtown grasslands preserved in Salem County


New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Photo by Fran Rapa
PILESGROVE TWP. - There are some things that money can't buy - like a beloved family business that's part of the fabric of the community.

That's how Grant and Betsy Harris feel about the Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove Township, Salem County. Not only has it been in the Harris family since 1929, it's also the oldest weekly professional rodeo in the country. Five generations of Harris family members have been involved in running the rodeo, the adjacent Cowtown farmers market and the farm's cattle operation.

About 15 years ago, a developer offered what Grant describes as "a ridiculous amount of money" for their land. Although Grant and Betsy seriously considered it, they found they couldn't imagine ever parting with Cowtown. What they really wanted was to pass their legacy on to the next generation.

Thanks to a federal grasslands preservation program designed for livestock farmers, that's exactly what they're doing.
On March 29, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and its partners permanently preserved nearly 375 acres of grasslands surrounding Cowtown Rodeo by purchasing the development rights from the Harris family's land. Proceeds allow Grant and Betsy to keep Cowtown in the family, as well as purchase additional land that they've been leasing for years.

"I get to make my living at my hobby every day - it doesn't get any better than that," said Grant, who competed professionally in the rodeo for years before shifting his efforts to managing Cowtown full-time. "The opportunity to make a living doing this means more to me than money."

Grant and Betsy plan to pass Cowtown - which encompasses a total of 1,700 acres - on to their daughter, Katy, her husband RJ, and their young son Nate.

Some of the funding for the land preservation project came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, a program administered by the Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Under this program, owners retain their land but agree to permanently restrict its use to agriculture.

Additional funds came from the Open Space Institute through its Bayshore Highlands Grant Fund - made possible with funding from the William Penn Foundation - which seeks to accelerate strategic land conservation in the New Jersey Bayshore and the Pennsylvania Highlands. The Cowtown project was eligible for this grant fund because of its strong natural and agricultural resources, including prime farm soils, large contiguous grasslands, habitat for endangered grassland birds, and wetlands that filter and purify water.

Natural Lands of Media, Penna. provided strategic technical and financial assistance, and Pilesgrove Township helped with funding for transactional costs.

The preservation of the Cowtown Rodeo property marks the first time the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program has been used to preserve grasslands in New Jersey. Because the Harris property is used primarily for breeding, raising and grazing rodeo horses and cattle, it has become some of the best grassland habitat in New Jersey. The pasture lands support about 100 horses and 300-500 head of cattle.

"In addition to protecting a viable and profitable agricultural operation, this preservation provides conservation benefits," said State Conservationist Carrie Lindig of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "Large blocks of well-managed grasslands like the Harris property support groundwater recharge and bird habitat. Among the several species that may benefit from this preservation is the Upland Sandpiper, a State Endangered species that relies on grassland bird habitat for nesting."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the State's Farmland Preservation Program will be utilized to preserve another 80 non-grassland acres of Harris property, used to grow corn for feeding livestock.

Long Preservation History

This isn't the first parcel of the Harris's Cowtown property that has been preserved. New Jersey Conservation Foundation assisted with the preservation of 465 acres of the Harris farm in 1990, including 191 acres that became a state wildlife management area. In addition, the Harris family owns a 292-acre preserved farm in nearby Quinton Township.

The original 1990 conservation easement on the Harris property in Pilesgrove was the first permanently preserved farm in Salem County. That project also resulted in the state establishing the 191-acre Featherbed Lane Wildlife Management Area, which is managed entirely as a grasslands preserve. One section of the newly-preserved Cowtown land abuts the wildlife management area.

The Harris farm has outstanding agricultural values. Collectively, nearly all of the Harris properties have soils of the highest quality for agricultural production.

"The preservation of the Harris farm helps protect the agricultural viability of this region, which is also an important agritourism destination," said Michele S. Byers, executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. In addition to the rodeo, the area includes a winery, a hunting preserve and multiple farm markets. The surrounding grasslands are a popular destination for bird watchers from far and wide."

The recent land preservation project continues NJ Conservation's successful partnership with Pilesgrove Township and the U.S Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"This groundbreaking project is a shining example of the innovation possible when public-private partnerships are used to protect drinking water, ecology and economic opportunity for farmers," said Peter Howell, executive vice president at the Open Space Institute. "We commend New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Natural Resources Conservation Service for pioneering the federal grassland easement program in New Jersey, achieving an outcome that strikes the perfect balance in sustainably protecting both working farmland and wildlife resources."

"Rare species like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows and American Kestrels are breeding in good numbers on this grassland, and other rare species like Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers forage on the land," said, Molly Morrison, President of Natural Lands. "Natural Lands feels fortunate to have helped preserve forever this habitat, and commends the Harris family for their deep commitment to its preservation and stewardship."

Cowtown Rodeo History

Cowtown Rodeo is located only 25 miles from downtown Philadelphia. The rodeo operates every Saturday night from May to September in an arena seating 4,000 spectators.

"Everything we do was started by my great-grandfather when he began a livestock auction in 1926," explained Grant, who is the 13th generation of his family to live in Salem County.

The rodeo was established in 1929 by Grant's great-grandfather and grandfather - Howard Harris Sr. and Howard "Stoney" Harris Jr. - to capitalize on the crowds that came for the livestock auction. Stoney Harris organized the first rodeo in in conjunction with the Salem County Fair, at the original auction grounds on North Main Street in Woodstown.

The rodeo became a weekly event in 1955, when Grant - the oldest grandson of Stoney - was only a year old. Grant grew up at Cowtown and began helping out with chores at an early age. He began riding calves when he was about six, and at eight years old became the rodeo's Junior Bull Riding Champion.

Grant and his wife, Betsy, bought the Cowtown property from Howard Harris III in 1978. Their daughters, Courtney and Katy, grew up helping with farm chores and barrel racing at the rodeo. "My two daughters were helping me out daily since they were little guys," said Grant. "I'm very blessed in that regard."

Courtney married into another rodeo family and moved out of state, but Katy and her husband RJ and their son Nate are now involved in the rodeo. This summer will be the rodeo's 64th season - and the first in which Katy and RJ are taking on the bulk of the management responsibilities.

Grant plans to stay active in Cowtown's other operations so that Katy and RJ can learn the ropes and phase in gradually. "I'm not ready to quit just yet," he said.

About New Jersey Conservation Foundation

New Jersey Conservation Foundation is a private nonprofit that preserves land and natural resources throughout New Jersey for the benefit of all. Since 1960, New Jersey Conservation has protected 125,000 acres of open space - from the Highlands to the Pine Barrens to the Delaware Bayshore, from farms to forests to urban and suburban parks. For more information about the Foundation's programs and preserves, go to or call 1-888-LAND-SAVE (1-888-526-3728).

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