The State We’re In: Don’t Treat Prime Soil Like Dirt!

Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

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

“While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.” – Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson, Founding Father and third U.S. president, wrote these words long before “farmland preservation” was conceived. But he and countless others understood that without good soil there’s no farming, and without farming there’s no food!

Conserving our precious soil is what modern farmland preservation programs are all about.

Under the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program, farmers retain ownership of their land but sell and permanently extinguish the development rights. The land can be used to grow crops – but no longer houses or strip malls.

Damaging a farm’s topsoil is considered a serious violation of farmland preservation rules, and a recent New Jersey court decision has reinforced this.

A state Superior Court judge ruled in late June that a commercial plant grower in Hunterdon County must restore preserved farmland that was damaged several years ago when he dug it up to build greenhouses.

Judge Peter Buchsbaum’s decision came nearly a year after David den Hollander, owner of Quaker Valley Farms in Franklin Township, was found guilty of destroying at least 14 acres of prime soil. The judge said den Hollander must restore the soils to their prime condition, meaning they must be capable of growing field crops like corn, wheat, oats, hay, barley and soybeans.

“New Jersey has made considerable investments over the past 30 years to protect farms with quality soils that can support agriculture now and in the future,” said Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher. “By requiring the restoration of damaged soils on Quaker Valley Farms, this decision protects the public’s investment and agricultural interest – not only in this preserved farm, but in the more than 2,000 other farms preserved under the state Farmland Preservation Program.”

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman added that the ruling is significant “not only because it affirms the duty of land owners to comply with the state’s farmland preservation laws, but because it makes plain that violators can, and will, be held accountable for their actions.”

Clearly, soil cannot be treated like dirt!

Soil is far more complex than most of us realize. Made up of a delicate balance of minerals and organic matter, healthy soil is home to millions of organisms, from earthworms and insects to microscopic bacteria and fungi. It takes approximately 500 years for nature to produce just one inch of topsoil!

All over New Jersey, farms that have been preserved through the state’s program proudly display “Preserved Farmland” signs with their distinctive barn logos.

Garden State taxpayers have made a huge financial investment in making sure these farmlands with top-quality soils remain available for agriculture forever. So it’s heartening to see the courts treating our soils like the valuable, finite resource they are!

To learn more about soil health, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Natural Resource Conservation Service website at

And for more information on preserving land and natural resources in New Jersey, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

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