Remarks at New Jersey Agricultural Convention

February 7, 2013

Hello and thank you for having me here. It is especially good to see Secretary Fisher again. We had a very productive meeting a few weeks ago, Doug bringing me up to speed on the Department and on the relationship between the agricultural community and the university. I have also had an opportunity recently to meet with Ryck Suydam, your Farm Bureau president, and Peter Furey, the executive director. Both are passionate spokespersons for farming in this state.

I’m proud to be at Rutgers, and I want to help instill that pride in every New Jersey citizen.  Whether you hold a degree from our institution or not, you should think of Rutgers as your university. Of course, the most direct connection you have to Rutgers is the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, and I will be talking about that relationship today, but there are a lot of reasons to be proud of Rutgers.

Did you know, for example, that we have one of the top three philosophy departments in the English-speaking world? Or that our chemistry department wins more federal research dollars than any other university in the nation—more than Harvard, more than MIT? 

Did you know that our dance program is considered one of the five best in America, right up there with Julliard? Or than only nine other universities have more graduates who are Fortune 500 CEOs? These are the kind of thing I want more people to know about Rutgers. 

I also want people to know about the interdisciplinary programs at Rutgers that touch the agricultural community—to give one example, the climate and environmental change initiative that is examining the effects that you have already been witnessing: the early springs that force blossoms without the bees to pollinate them, or the severe storms and autumn snowfalls that can wreak havoc with crops. Gathering data in innovative ways, such as the underwater gliders from our Coastal and Ocean Observation Lab, we are looking at how to anticipate and mitigate the change, how to adapt, and how to prevent the most severe effects.

Just a little about my background to give you some perspective. I’m a New Jersey guy. I grew up in Westfield, used to ride my bike past farms on my paper route, camped with the Boy Scouts in the Watchung Mountains, and spent many a summer day sneaking off to the Jersey Shore with my friends. I went off to become a neuroscientist and neurologist, but I didn’t go far. Before returning to Rutgers, most of my academic career was spent right across the bridge in Philadelphia.

So yes, I’m a scientist and an academic, but I’m a business guy, too. For the past 15 years, I have sat on the corporate boards of two major international companies in the drug development sector, and I have learned firsthand how business works. You need a sound business model, you need to understand markets, and you need to recognize trends, prepare for contingencies, apply smart budgetary practices, and deal with risk. All of that is true for running a multinational corporation or a state university, and it’s also true if you’re operating a farm.

I’m sure many of you saw the Super Bowl ad about the American farmer. It really grabs you, talking about the heart and soul and spirit of the farmer, but one thing it didn’t say anything about was the brains of the American farmer. The fact of the matter is that running farms today requires not just heart and soul and strength but also brains. You have to be adept and nimble on the business side to make things succeed because, underneath the plants and the soil, farming is a business. With more than a billion dollars in sales each year, it is a substantial business sector in New Jersey, and a critical part of a very large food industry that accounts for nearly one-tenth of New Jersey’s entire private-sector economy. Like every other business sector, agriculture has its set of challenges—regulations, access to labor, material and equipment costs, changing markets, and not least of all the weather. And you have the particular challenge of operating in an increasingly urbanized state, which has seen farmland acreage drop by about 50 percent since I was growing up in Westfield—and with it a loss in efficiency and critical mass and many of the auxiliary services that agriculture needs.

But despite all these challenges, New Jersey farms rank among the top three or four in the nation in the net income per acre and in the value of agricultural production per acre. That’s remarkable, and it says to me that you are incredibly good managers. You have analyzed the problems and opportunities and have adapted to meet them. You are doing it with specialty crops, ornamentals, wine grapes, ethnic crops, and the like. Our farms are among the national leaders in direct marketing and agritourism. You are tapping into New Jersey’s increasing diversity, our growing desire for fresh, locally grown foods, and our interest in farms as a destination. In lots of ways, you are finding niches that enable you to extract more value from the same acre of land. 

But this isn’t new here. Listen to this quote: “From sheer economic pressure, New Jersey farmers discovered that if they were to survive they must adjust their practices to new conditions. … New Jersey must turn to the production of specialties ….” That’s from a book in the Ag Station library, written 80 years ago, about the farmers of the mid-1800s. So what you are doing is a New Jersey farming tradition.

And for all those years, the Agricultural Experiment Station has been your partner. Rutgers research has helped improve farm production, fight pests and diseases, mitigate pollution, conserve water, and advocate for public policies to support agriculture. Our research has had a hand in virtually every major policy initiative to help the agricultural community, from farmland assessment to farmland preservation to right-to-farm legislation. And that relationship is as strong as ever.  In fact, about 25 percent of the resolutions under consideration at this convention mention a specific new or continuing relationship with the Agricultural Experiment Station.

We want to maintain that partnership. Rutgers takes great pride in being New Jersey’s land-grant institution. To be sure, the role of the Ag Experiment Station has grown to cover a lot more than commercial agriculture. It now includes areas like the education program associated with food stamps, fisheries and aquaculture, environmental preservation and water management, nutrition, community wellness, master gardeners, 4H, and more. I’m especially excited about the Food Innovation Centers we operate and the entrepreneurship they support. But beyond all these programs, our connection to New Jersey agriculture remains the critical core mission.

Your success is important to the state’s economy, and it’s important to Rutgers, too. That’s why, for example, that we have revived and strengthened the agricultural major at Rutgers, recognizing that with the average age of our farmers approaching 60, we owe it to you and the state to train a new generation of New Jersey farmers. It’s also why we conduct research to help quantify the benefits of agritourism, or to identify the critical need for saving mid-sized farms across the state.

Rutgers has other compelling reasons to support farming that go far beyond our shared history, or the dollars-and-cents economic impact, or the jobs you sustain. First and foremost, you play a critical role in managing New Jersey’s land resources. Already the most densely populated state in the country, New Jersey is potentially the first state to be completely built-out. So in addition to whatever we can achieve in open space preservation, the disposition of farmland matters to everyone in the state. The fact is that the majority of the state’s undeveloped land is owned or managed by New Jersey’s agricultural industry. And those remaining acres are precious.

Your farms are a substantial ecosystem with all sorts of environmental benefits, including sustaining wildlife and assisting migratory birds and insects. Your farms are also an aesthetic asset for the state, and we hear more and more planning experts talk about the value of green infrastructure. If I’m a CEO of a small business, I want to live somewhere nice, and the presence of farms and open space is a major plus for relocations. 

Another, sometimes overlooked factor is that farmland is a very good ratable. Even taking farmland assessment into account, farms still contribute something like three times more to the tax coffers than they consume in public services. As the old promotional campaign put it, “Cows don’t go to school.” Study after study has shown that farmed and forested lands are a positive thing for a town, and there are many municipalities that can tell you that bad things happen when you force them out. 

So Rutgers and the Agricultural Experiment Station want to work with the farming community to keep your operations healthy and sustainable. Through farmland preservation, New Jersey has already protected more than 200,000 of the 730,000 farming acres we now have—the highest percentage of permanently preserved farmland in the nation. Yet, at the same time, the more the Ag Station can do to help make your businesses profitable by helping you adapt to changing markets and demands, the better we can ensure that future generations get to enjoy the agricultural benefits we all enjoy today.

Sometimes that may mean we make investments that don’t have immediate payoff for farmers. It’s our job to look down the road and identify emerging trends and problems and potential new markets. For example, how many farmers were paying attention nine years ago when we focused on brown marmorated stinkbugs that were appearing in local houses? That was long before this pest became a major problem for agriculture, but now we have nearly a decade of research behind our efforts to help solve the problem.

Let me return to the non-economic benefits of our farms and suggest that one huge role for agriculture is in promoting public health. It’s no secret that obesity—especially childhood obesity—is a major public health crisis. And that’s not because our kids are eating too many bell peppers or peaches or asparagus. New Jersey’s agricultural community can contribute in a big way to promoting good food choices and healthy lifestyles, and I hope we can partner with you around these issues in the years to come. 

One of the most exciting changes going on at Rutgers is the integration of most of the schools and centers of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into our flagship university. While the medical and dental schools and clinical practices are a substantial piece of the integration, we are also getting UMD’s School of Public Health—and there are enormous opportunities to link up the Ag Station’s programs in nutrition, community wellness, and child development with this public health program.

Speaking of UMDNJ, the integration of this very large institution is going to be a major challenge for Rutgers—in dollars and cents alone, taking us from a $2 billion annual budget to more than $3 billion. So we are in the process of creating a new strategic plan that will guide us through the next ten years. We have to do some deep thinking about where our opportunities for excellence will be. 

While it’s still early in the planning, I can say that with Bob Goodman, Larry Katz, Brian Schilling, and others, there is an Ag leadership team in place at Rutgers whom we can rely on to see that the interest of this sector is fully reflected in the process. 

As you know only too well, state funding for the Agricultural Experiment Station has declined significantly over the past decade, but you may not appreciate that state funding for the remainder of the university, with its statewide mission, has declined by an even greater percentage. All of our programs will have to stretch every dollar. No matter what specific agricultural targets emerge in the strategic plan, attaining them will mean asking the Agricultural Experiment Station, just like the rest of Rutgers, to think entrepreneurially, to work toward weaning itself off state support, to look for emerging areas of opportunity and alternative revenue sources, and to create new ways to serve the people of New Jersey with even greater impact. 

Along these lines, I know there is a listening session a little later today in which the Ag Station will have an open dialogue about the future. Ahead of that session, the ag agents have begun to consider which areas, in addition to their core mission, are going to be important to keep on the cutting edge. We have a long history of that kind of forward thinking at the Ag Experiment Station, and with your input, it’s a tradition we can make even stronger. I urge you to join that conversation.

So with that, let me thank you for listening and, once again, for your commitment to New Jersey and its people. We at Rutgers want you to flourish, and I hope we can be your partner in a sustainable and very exciting future on your farms and on our campuses.