For some N.J. farmers, ‘Right to Farm Act’ doesn’t go far enough

In 1983, the New Jersey Legislature passed the Right to Farm Act, a bill that was intended to provide legal protection and support for farmers in the Garden State. But some farmers feel Right to Farm fails to cover all of the issues they encounter.

At a recent Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) meeting, farmers from around the state shared stories of clashes with neighbors and communities over everything from land use to traffic.

Right to Farm requires farmers to operate in accordance with agricultural management practices (AMPs) that have been developed by the State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC). The Act also gives primary jurisdiction in resolving complaints against agricultural operations to County Agriculture Development Boards (CADBs) and ultimately to the SADC if there are appeals.

Brian Schilling, who serves on the SADC, called the Right to Farm Act the strongest in the nation.

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“The law says if you are farming and complying with accepted Agricultural Management Practices and a neighbor complains, you will be found to not be a nuisance. Farms generate dust, odor and noise, and Right to Farm determines that this is normal for a farm.”

Potential issues with the legislation

But for Jim Kinsel and Sherry Dudas, owners of Honey Brook Organic Farm in Pennington, the legislation hasn’t helped in their effort to expand their operation.

Honey Brook Organic Farm, which is a Community Supported Agriculture farm, is considered one of the oldest and largest in New Jersey. The farm has received national recognition, and was even featured in a segment on the Food Network. Kinsel and Dudas were encouraged by the farm’s success and decided to expand into nearby Chesterfield.

Dudas says the problems started with neighbors who thought they had a right to park on the private lane leading to their farm.

“The neighbor has lived in Chesterfield longer than we have, so the cops were called, and it evolved into a legal dispute,” Dudas said.

CSA members go to the farm to pick up their share twice a week and also do “pick-your-own” in the fields.

“From the beginning, neighbors raised concerns about the distribution center,” Dudas said.

Kinsel and Dudas hired a lawyer and attempted to mediate. However, at their last meeting they say Chesterfield officials surprised the couple with a request for a traffic study and paving of the lane. They refused, and Chesterfield filed a formal Right to Farm complaint against them.

“This new regulation felt retaliatory, they seem to be dreaming up new regulations that the other CSA didn’t have to go through,” Dudas said. “The County Agricultural Development board has our deer fence on their July agenda to review along with the paving of the lane and the mandate for the traffic study. It’s getting very expensive, and we are still trying to mediate with the town to make these problems go away.”

Ralph Shrom, a spokesperson for Burlington County, confirmed that the deer fence and site plan requirements have been adjourned until a scheduled July meeting. Shrom said that the Burlington CADB is acting as arbiter between the town and the farm.

Chesterfield Mayor Michael Hlubik said officials have tried to work with Honey Brook.

“Chesterfield ordinances and our master plan have been in favor of agriculture, but if you do something on your site, you need to follow rules in accordance with the township. It may look like we are picking on Honey Brook but it’s not the case, we’re just asking them to do what is in the ordinance,” Hlubik said.

Hlubik feels neighbors and the farm owners need to work together to find a solution.

Keeping up with the industry

Other farms, including Stonyfield Meadows and Bobolink Farm in Milford claim they have experienced similar issues in their communities

Schilling wouldn’t comment on specific cases, but did say he feels there is a lack of familiarity with the law on the local and county levels.

“There isn’t proper awareness of the Right to Farm Act, and the SADC has been trying to educate the public and officials as to the proper venue for complaints,” Schilling said.

Schilling also feels the industry is evolving faster than the regulatory process. Language in Right to Farm may not cover farmers who opt to open their land to new activities.

But despite the issues, Schilling feels Right to Farm is effective and is doing what it was intended to do.

“Even in the face of suburbanization and the regulatory environment not as friendly to farms as it was years ago, it gives farmers a sense of security that if they are doing the right thing, and someone complains about them, they will be protected under state law.”

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