New Brunswick, N.J. — It had been three years since the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s New Jersey chapter held an in-person conference, and the numbers showed enthusiasm for a gathering.
Around 350 people — farmers, consumers, industry professionals, educators and students — attended the NOFA NJ 33rd Annual Winter Conference Jan. 28 at Rutgers University.
Getting more farmers to take advantage of the growing organic marketplace was a dominant theme. The key to achieving that is to avoid alienating them, said keynote speaker Jeff Moyer, CEO of the Rodale Institute.
Inclusion is essential, said the head of the 75-year-old organic research-and-education nonprofit.
“If you want to get somebody to transition from conventional to organic, you don't tell them they're doing everything wrong,” he said.
Moyer outlined several long-term and recent research studies, at Rodale and elsewhere, that demonstrate the deleterious effects of farming with chemicals on human health and the environment.
“In 1960, we spent three times as much on food as we did health care,” he said. “Today, we spend almost twice as much on health care as we spend on food.”
Financial incentives for transitioning are pretty good, too, he said, although New Jersey farmers, and U.S. farmers in general, are missing an opportunity.
Domestic annual organic food consumption hovers at around $62 billion, Moyer said, while domestic organic production falls at around $11 billion.
“There's a problem we can work on,” Moyer said. “Statistics just came out from NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service) for the 2021 census, and it says that here in New Jersey, there's a total of 9,883 registered farms that are in the census ... 70 of those are certified organic ... and it’s less than 3,000 acres.”
The way to convert farmers and acreage to organic production is to talk science, he said.
“Rodale Institute is not an activist organization," Moyer said. "We are a scientific research and education facility that takes hard science to farmers to make practical changes.”
The official theme of the conference, which was on hiatus in 2021 and 2022 due to the pandemic, was “Growing the Garden State Together.”
“We had a large urban presence, probably between 50-75 individuals, and many folks gave feedback that this conference was the most diverse NOFA New Jersey Winter Conference they have seen, both in attendee demographics and in content matter,” said Devin Cornia, the chapter’s executive director.
“A big goal for me was to reflect the diversity in New Jersey through our program. We have it all here in New Jersey — aquaculture, dairies, livestock farms, vegetable farms, orchards, urban farms, cranberry bogs, grain farms, sod farms, a thriving nursery business ... the list goes on.”
Such diversity is cause for celebration, Cornia said.
“Plus, our temperate climate and proximity to large population centers will allow New Jersey food systems to become a leader and thrive, if given the proper support.”
In order for the state to realize all that potential, he said, the farming community must work together.
“We don’t have time to draw boundaries, be divisive or exclude anyone from participation," Cornia said. "Shaping our food system so that New Jersey can feed New Jersey and farmers can thrive is going to require cooperation from all parties within.”
David Watts, a certified organic farmer in Salem County, was attending his first conference.
“We do fresh produce and animals,” he said. “The animals are not certified, but we use organic practices.”
About to enter his third season farming, Watts is representative of many newer, younger farmers in that he does not have a traditional background in agriculture. The conference, he said, and its diversity of educational workshops, exhibits and especially people offers invaluable networking opportunities.
“NOFA is really good for the community aspect of it. And we're newer ... So it's nice to have contact information with other farmers.”
Watts is currently raising laying and meat chickens, goats for grazing and will soon add pigs to a silvopasture system integrating trees and livestock. He, also, sees huge potential for growth of the organic sector in his state.
“I was talking about this with some local farmers that I know and especially down in South Jersey,” he said. “NOFA is trying to get more people to transition to organic in that region. There aren't too many of us down there in Salem that are organic.”
NOFA NJ is one of seven state chapters — along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — under the 50-year-old, 5,000-plus-member NOFA umbrella bringing together farmers, gardeners, landscape professionals and consumers to promote healthy food, organic farming practices and a cleaner environment.