Farmer sees New Jersey's changing landscape

Roger Winner outside his hay storage bins in Westampton. "You lose 16 acres here to the bog turtle, 32 there for soccer fields, and 25 to a solar farm. . . . There are fewer and fewer acres left."
Roger Winner outside his hay storage bins in Westampton. "You lose 16 acres here to the bog turtle, 32 there for soccer fields, and 25 to a solar farm. . . . There are fewer and fewer acres left." (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 18, 2014

As a chilly rain fell, Roger Winner stepped from his pickup and gloomily scanned the 16 acres of weed-choked fields that he had once nurtured. The land, adjacent to a solar farm in Burlington Township, must be allowed to return to its natural state to protect the habitat of endangered bog turtles under orders issued last year by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Winner had leased that land and a nearby parcel where he grows the high-grade rye that is turned into fluffy white bedding for thoroughbreds at the Parx and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., racetracks. He bristles at the loss of the plot that he had worked for decades, producing hay.

Winner, 68, a third-generation farmer who owned Sunnyside Farms, once one of the state's largest dairies, is now finding it challenging to keep the 700 acres he leases. Solar farms, recreational fields, parks, reforestation projects, and preserves for wildlife are laying claim to what once was traditional farming land in the Garden State.

"You lose 16 acres here to the bog turtle, 32 there for soccer fields, and 25 to a solar farm, and it keeps chipping away at the land. . . . There are fewer and fewer acres left," said Winner, referring to open space in Westampton Township and nearby communities in Burlington County. Winner owns 70 acres but says it is more economical to lease the land.

In 1958, when Irving Winner, his father, was farming, there were 1.5 million acres of farmland in the state, according to Lynne Richmond, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. The acreage dropped to half that in 2007, the latest available year for these statistics. More current statistics are expected this month.

The landscape is changing for longtime farmers who used to be able to more easily find acres to lease cheaply enough to turn a profit.

Winner's grandfather started the family farm in 1919 with 135 acres, long before the New Jersey Turnpike and the busy I-295 were built. Commercial developers arrived in the 1960s, and Westampton became a mix of farmland and industrial sites.

By 2004, Roger Winner said, Sunnyside Farms had 500 cows and grew corn and animal feed. But when a neighboring farmer sold his land to Orleans Homebuilders Inc., which proposed building 550 houses nearby, Winner said, he had to change course. "How would we survive with houses 50 yards from us?" he said, explaining why he then agreed to sell part of his land to Orleans. "The smell of cow manure and the houses wouldn't be good."

The developer encountered financial problems because of the recession in 2009 and dropped the project, but by then Winner was farming soybeans, hay, and rye on the land he owned and leased.

"We could farm 2,000 acres if it was available," Winner said. "But the land is so competitive."

The tiny, reclusive bog turtle is only the latest obstacle keeping him from farming to his potential.

Winner also lost acreage to rows of tilting, glaring black panels that harness energy. When PSE&G made plans to install a solar farm in Burlington, the DEP ordered it to create a buffer because it was close to a wetlands and a bog turtle habitat. PSE&G then sent Winner a letter saying he had to "cease and desist" from farming in the newly created buffer.

Winner questioned the DEP's reasoning, saying the agency is paying dairy farmers to have the cows graze in the turtle habitat because the turtles need open, sunny areas to thrive. Now, hip-high weeds have sprouted alongside saplings that have the potential to create an undesirable shade that could hurt the turtles, he said.

In an e-mail, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said: "The idea behind letting the buffer area return to nature is that the vegetation - whether it's trees, shrubs or plants - is to capture runoff" that could flood the area and harm the habitat. To create a sunny area, part of the buffer may have to be cleared in the future, he added.

On a recent tour of Winner's farmland, he pointed out his green rye fields, which he rotates with a soybean crop. He also noted the sweeping acreage that his family once farmed. That land is now occupied by a g industrial park, warehouses for Dunkin' Donuts and a trucking company, a psychiatric hospital, a golf course, and housing developments. "We used to farm all of this," he said, adding that a decade ago, it was a full 1,000 acres.

Among the acres he now farms is land owned by Henry Rowan, owner of Inductotherm and benefactor of Rowan University. In the past, he had also farmed part of a 77-acre parcel along the Rancocas Creek that Rowan later donated to Burlington County for parkland. That acreage is now being transferred to Westampton Township for baseball fields, other recreational use, and trails.

The Burlington County freeholders also have turned their attention to creating more parks and recreation areas out of open space, with less focus on preserving farmland.

Winner also pointed out a 100-acre former farm that is being converted into woods as part of a state reforestation project. The land, which another farmer had leased to grow soybeans, now contains rows of saplings sprinkled among shrubs and weeds.

When the New Jersey Turnpike was widened, some of the trees that had to be removed were later replaced on nearby land.

"I'm not sure I understand why the trees had to be planted there," Winner said. "It's now another farm that's gone."

jhefler@phillynews.com856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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