Warren County boasts beautiful natural, historical, and agricultural resources. Our rural communities are not only steeped in centuries of farming tradition, but of the 72,000 acres currently being farmed, Warren County has already invested in preserving approximately 23,000 acres of farmland. Our resilient farmers and versatile soils produce a variety of agricultural outputs, ranking us as one of the state’s most productive counties. Due to our proximity to the Philadelphia and New York City regions, Warren County farms are well positioned to provide two major metropolitan markets with locally grown food and products.
Nevertheless, Warren County’s agricultural community faces many challenges. Based on preliminary research, we’ve developed the following SWOT framework below for you to consider. This is not intended to be a final product and is being shared simply to stimulate thought and discussion around the future of agriculture in our area. We want to hear your thoughts!
Strengths: Beautiful, Accessible, Preserved, and Productive
Beautiful. Located in North West New Jersey along the Delaware River, Warren County is a beautiful rural community of about 107,000 residents stretching over 362 square miles of rolling hills and bucolic valleys that are crisscrossed by flowing streams and dotted by small historic villages. We are home to nationally significant areas like the Delaware Water Gap, the ‘Kittatinny Ridge, the Highlands Region Forests, and the Wild and Scenic Musconetcong River. Our heritage is rich with stories from before this country’s founding and includes historic sites associated with the revolutionary and civil wars, some related to westward expansion and the industrial revolution, and others highlighting our community’s deep agricultural roots at sites like the Hoff Vannatta Farmstead which dates back to colonial times. Our beautiful farms, villages, parks, and historic sites are tremendous resources on the outskirts of two major metropolitan areas.Accessible. Although very rural, Warren County is also easily accessible from the heavily traveled Interstate Routes 80 and 78. Our easternmost town is an hour drive from New York City, while our southernmost town is just an hour and half drive from Philadelphia. Nearly 10 million people in just these two cities alone are less than a two hour drive away. About 20 million who people live in the New York Metropolitan Area and another 7 million people who live in the Delaware Valley Metropolitan Area are with only a few hours drive of Warren County. In addition, several important state highways pass through our community which, along with many county roads, provides quick and convenient access to several affluent communities in neighboring Sussex, Morris, and Hunterdon counties.
Learn More: www.ChooseNJ.com
Preserved. In this nation’s most densely populated state, Warren County’s long tradition of agriculture endures with about 780 farms comprising over 72,000 acres. We rank fifth in the State when it comes to total number of farms and total farmland acreage. Moreover, we boast over 250 permanently preserved farms comprising over 23,000 acres farmland. This ranks us as third in the State in terms of number of farms preserved and fourth in terms of preserved farmland acreage. Notably, we also rank first in the New Jersey Highlands Region in terms of both number of preserved farms and farmland acreage. The preservation of farmland in Warren County is especially significant because much of our land is designated as Highlands Agricultural Resource Area and our soils are well-suited for producing a variety of output.
Productive. In light of our resources, Warren County’s agriculture industry remains productive and relatively competitive by some measures. For instance, we rank fifth in the State of New Jersey in terms of total agricultural sales at $90,000,000.00. We also rank number one in the Garden State for Christmas trees, poultry and eggs, aquaculture, layer chickens, and Chukar partridges. We rank number two in the state for cow milk, grains, cattle/calves and sheep/lambs. Last but not least, we number three for Pheasants and placed in New Jersey’s top ten counties for many other products.
Weaknesses: Adaptation, Processing, Distributing, and Marketing
Adaption. Despite Warren County’s many strengths, many of our farmers have struggled to keep pace with changing consumer demands. As our famers age, they struggle to adapt, retool, and reinvent themselves to meet new market demands. Many are not comfortable with online or direct-to-consumer marketing tools. Many are unfamiliar with ethnic crops, organic practices, and changing consumer preferences. Many also struggle to take advantage of existing local food system channels. Not only is the aging farmer a concern from the standpoint of sustaining the agricultural industry in general, but it presents real challenges for local agricultural businesses trying to meet changing consumer demands. Farmers have often invested a lot of time and money over prior decades in acquiring equipment, supplies, and skills needed to grow particular crops, often commodity crops. Therefore, many lack either the financial means, risk tolerance, or specialized knowledge to overhaul their operations to grow niche products.
Processing. Due to state and local regulations regarding prepared food, many farmers cannot add value to their products without a commercial kitchen or processing facility. Often it may not make financial or economic sense for small and moderate size farmers to invest in developing these facilities onsite. Many of the small and emerging farms often lack the capital or cannot secure financing. Even those with the capital or financing may be averse to assuming the financial risks unless they are confident that they will see a sufficient return on their investment. Moreover, there are few processing alternatives in Warren County and neighboring areas that are available to producers. In short, there are also few facilities that assist farmers with value-added product development. Although there would appear to be sufficient demand for such facilities, we have not seen private enterprise rush to fill this gap in the food system. Again, this may be due to a lack of capital, available financing, risk aversion, uncertainty, or general economic conditions.
Distribution. Small and emerging farmers often face hurdles when distributing their products. Many farmers simply do not have the time or resources to deliver their products directly to consumers – especially where those consumers are dispersed and distant. Moreover, consumers may prefer to buy certain products online, other products at a local farm market, some at the grocery store, and still others when they tour the countryside. Depending on their type of product, a local farmer’s shipping and transportation options may be very limited. For those products that need to be aggregated and then distributed in order to be economically viable, there are few such services available to Warren County farmers.
Marketing. Last but not least, Warren County farms and their products lack a common identity, unique branding, or collaborative marketing efforts which farmers in other competing regions currently enjoy. For products being processed or distributed, a common brand or identity does not exist for Warren County products that could help consumer recognize these locally grown products. Moreover, Warren County also competes in terms of agritourism with readily identifiable destinations like the Catskills and Hudson Valley in New York, and with the Poconos and Lancaster in Pennsylvania. However, our farmers and their products lack a similar brand or identity that is readily identifiable.
Opportunities: Local, Niche, Value-Added, and Agritourism
Locally Grown. Participation in local food systems has become increasingly important as the demand for local foods has grown. The value of local food sales, both direct-to-consumer and via intermediate marketing channels, is increasing. Resident and visiting consumers have expressed preferences for local foods in restaurants, grocery stores, schools, farmers markets, CSAs, and traditional farm stands. In addition, regional food hubs are being established in many areas in order to aggregate local products and distribute them throughout a growing network of sale points. Warren County is well positioned to provide locally grown foods, not only because of its conscientious farmers and abundant farmland, but because its resources are local in terms of proximity to two major metropolitan areas.
Learn More: http://www.jerseyfresh.nj.gov/
Niche Markets. Changing markets are also creating demand for niche products like ethnic foods and organic products. While the rural farming communities like Warren County have seen a reduction in population, nearby urban and metropolitan populations continue to increase, driven in large part by growing immigrant communities. These communities not only often spend more money each month on fresh produce than others, but purchasers of ethnic foods put food freshness ahead of price which reinforced the importance of engaging local food systems. In addition, many consumers have also expressed a clear preference for organic farm products, with demand continuing to rise. Warren County is well positioned to provide products to ethnic, organic, and other niche markets because of its abundant farmland and versatile soils, but because it can connect with these nearby consumer markets.
Value-Added Products. Like the niche markets for ethnic and organic agricultural products, value-added agricultural products generally sell for higher premiums and therefore are where smaller producers can often be the most successful. Rather than competing against larger operations with greater economies of scale, value-added agribusinesses focus on creating higher per unit profit margins at a smaller scale. For instance, an orchard may bake apple pies or make cider, whereas a vegetable farm might bake zucchini bread or can tomatoes. In doing so, the farm can not only often extend its marketing season, but it can utilize these products to help build an identity and foster brand loyalty. Moreover, farmers can also add value by being local, farming conscientiously, and producing niche products, so it often all ties together.
Learn More: http://foodinnovation.rutgers.edu/
Agritourism Experiences. Not only can local farms cleverly fill niches and creatively add-value, but they can add value by sharing their story with consumers and by offering their visitors a unique experience. As the most densely populated state in the country continues to grow and urbanize, many New Jersey residents have lost touch with farming and where their food comes from. Nevertheless, consumer interest in food and agriculture has seen a resurgence. Many consumers are interested in escaping their cities on the weekend, exploring the countryside, enjoying farm fresh produce, and learning more about where their food comes from, and interacting with the farms and farmers they are visiting. Located within just a few hours of nearly 27 million people and boasting unparalleled natural, historic, and agricultural resources, Warren County is ideally situated to offer visitors the experiences they are looking for.
Learn More: https://delawareriver.natgeotourism.com/
Threats: Aging, Shrinking, Stagnating, and Overlooked
Aging. Despite its strengths, Warren County’s agricultural industry faces several significant obstacles which threatens success. The average Warren County farmer is 59 years old and aging. While this is a national trend that is not unique to Warren County, nevertheless the lack of new entrants and younger farmers remains a serious concern in terms of sustainability and market adaptation. Many retiring farmers often forego proper estate planning and farm succession planning which would help heirs continue their farming operations. Beginning farmers also face numerous obstacles, including the price and availability of land, the cost of equipment and supplies, and general financial assistance. In addition, beginner farmers by their very nature lack extensive agricultural and entrepreneurial experience and either lack opportunities or fail to take advantage of training assistance programs. Ultimately, it has been a challenge for communities like Warren County to equip new farmers with the knowledge, tools, land, and capital necessary to create viable agribusiness.
Shrinking. Not only are our famers getting older, but Warren County farms are shrinking both in terms of number and in terms of total acreage being farmed. For instance, despite successful preservation efforts, between 2007 and 2012 the number of farms fell 16% while farmland acreage fell 4%. We surmise that as many of our farmers retire, they contribute to this trend by often taking their land out of production, developing it, or selling it to another farmer for consolidation purposes. However, economic and demographic pressures also invariably play a role. While New Jersey has seen its overall population growth remain relatively flat because the state’s most urban areas have seen population growth, its most rural areas, including Warren County, have actually seen population decline as retirees and young people leave for lower cost living and employment.
Stagnating. As our farmers retire, the number of our farms shrink, and our rural population declines, we have witnessed many of our remaining farmers struggling to hang on. While we do have a few very large, very successful farming operations, most of our farms are modestly sized family farms. Nearly 60% of the farms in Warren County generate less than $5,000 in sales per year. Nearly 80% of our farms generate less than $25,000 in sales per year. After expenses the average farmer here nets only $26,650 in income from operations.
Overlooked. Warren County’s hard working and conscientious farmers, their deeply rooted family farms, and their exceptional products have largely been overlooked by growing metropolitan markets. While we do have several successful agritourism destinations and events, and while a few local farmers have been able to sell their products in more urban areas, these have been the exception rather than the rule. Most small and midsize farms have been unable to leverage this community’s vast agricultural resources, adapt to changing consumer demands, access and penetrate nearby growing markets, and compete with other regional agritourism destinations and production areas.
Based on our preliminary SWOT analysis, some potential growth strategies which we are examining include:
- Encourage Young People to Farm
- Offer Additional Agricultural Programs at Local Schools, Colleges, and Universities
- Coordinate a Farming Apprenticeship Program
- Assist New Farmers
- Create an Incubator Space for Beginning Farmers
- Provide Professional Business Coaching
- Coordinate a Farming Mentorship Program
- Develop a Food Enterprise Center
- Collaboratively Aggregate, Process, and Distribute Products
- Shared Commercial Kitchen Space
- Engage Institutional Buyers
- Help Retirees Transition their Farms to Next Generation
- Preserve Farmland
- Connect Retirees with Young Farmers
- Cooperatively Market Local Food
- Facilitate Participation in Jersey Fresh Program
- Design and Promote a Regional Brand/Identity