Garden State Boasts Bumper Crop Of Outstanding Young Farmers

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Farming is hard work. It’s no surprise that a career in farming isn’t top on the list when young people are asked what they want to be when they grow up. But this state we’re in has produced an exceptional crop of young farmers. For the third year in a row, and the fifth time in the last 11 years, a “National Outstanding Young Farmer” is from New Jersey!

Actual farm work, like planting and harvesting, is hard enough, but factor in the difficulty of making the business of farming profitable in today’s economy and you will understand the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience necessary to succeed at farming.

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Since 1955, the Outstanding Young Farmer program has recognized exceptional farmers aged 21-39 years old. The program improves urban-rural relationships and fosters interest in farming by raising awareness of the challenges, contributions and achievements of farmers and their importance to our nation’s economy. It’s the oldest farmer recognition program in the country, and is administered by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jaycees).

In 2011, John and Stacy Melick of Oldwick, Hunterdon County, became one of four national Outstanding Young Farmer winners. Melick’s Town Farm is a fruit and vegetable farm with three locations and a family heritage dating back to the 1700s. John and Stacy have expanded the farming operation to include two all-season markets and a third rented farm market. They also participate in 10 community farmers markets and have expanded their “pick-your-own” produce offerings.

Though John Melick is a 10th-generation farmer, he shares something in common with a new wave of young farmers: his direct path to farming was from the outside. Though there are no accurate measures, the New Jersey Farm Bureau estimates the state may have as many as 400 beginning farmers who have been in the business less than 10 years. Many come from outside farming, drawn to specialties like wineries or organic farming; others are retirees and professionals opting for farming as a second career. John Melick worked in civil engineering before returning to work on the family farm.

Melick put his engineering experience to work on technical innovations. He began using drip irrigation to save water, and eliminated the need for heat pasteurization by using ultraviolet light to treat apple cider. The Melicks also adopted an integrated pest management plan that reduces the need for chemical pesticides.

The Melicks join 2010 national Outstanding Young Farmer winner Richard A. Norz of Hillsborough, Somerset County, and 2009 winner H. William Sytsema of Wantage, Sussex County, as the third consecutive New Jersey state winner to win a national award. Since 1999, every New Jersey State Outstanding Young Farmer has made the cut as a top-10 finalist for the national award. Among them was John Melick’s brother, Peter, who was the state winner in 2007.

So congratulations to the Melicks and all of New Jersey’s outstanding, hard-working young farmers! Thank you for carrying forward the rich agricultural heritage that puts fresh food on the table and keeps New Jersey the Garden State.

If you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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