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Beyond the Field: Expanding Horizons for Leaders in Agriculture

The New Jersey Agricultural Leadership Development Program Educates Local Farmers
Photo: An exercise in team building demonstrates how to advance through cooperation.

An exercise in team building demonstrates how to advance through cooperation.

There's no question that New Jersey growers know their trade. Talk to a farmer and they can ply you with information on crops, pests, weather, irrigation, markets, and customers. But it's the world outside of their business that is unfamiliar to most farmers, yet is one from which they can benefit greatly. The New Jersey Agricultural Leadership Development Program (NJALDP), a unique and special opportunity for growers and agricultural affiliates to expand their horizons, changes all that.

The New Jersey program is one of 40 national ag leadership programs, joined by a handful of international programs. It is co-sponsored by New Jersey Farm Bureau, New Jersey Department of Agriculture, New Jersey Agricultural Society, and Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES). Each participant attends a two-year course that involves developing skills in communication, public speaking, team building, management, and marketing. Tours of New Jersey, Washington D.C. and abroad enhance the participants' understanding of agricultural infrastructure, state and federal government, agricultural economics, and effects of globalization on agriculture and the U.S. economy. Each class goes on one international excursion that exposes New Jersey ag leadership students to agriculture and other industries in countries including Chile, Italy, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands.

Photo: NJALDP members touring a livestock operation in Italy.

NJALDP members touring a livestock operation in Italy.

With close to 180 graduates over its 18 years of existence, program director Dr. Mary Nikola of Rutgers NJAES has a treasure trove of stories to tell about the far reaching impacts of this program. She can rattle off a list of graduates who have gone on to hold leadership positions serving on various New Jersey boards of agriculture or have become elected officials. The connections made through the program have brought new projects and employment and the new skills have taken graduates down paths that otherwise would not have been blazed.

Who are the people that sign up for this experience? They represent the diversity of New Jersey agriculture and related industries. While there are production farmers from diverse arenas from nursery, fruit orchards to a buffalo farm, there are also representatives from agricultural agencies and industries, with individuals from conservation groups or fisheries thrown in the mix. This makes for some interesting dynamics.

Profile: Connecting with legislators

In the several years since Meredith Compton graduated from the program, she has become a seasoned public speaker. A former tree fruit IPM program associate for Rutgers NJAES, and current co-owner with her husband Jeremy of Peaceful Valley Orchards in Pittstown, NJ, Compton learned more about state government and how it affects her business, thanks to the ag leadership program. She learned how to effectively communicate with legislators and has made a regular practice of inviting them to events at the farm to give them first-hand exposure. The result? Among the countless visitors to Peaceful Valley Orchards, the list includes New Jersey legislators as well as Governor Chris Christie.

Connecting with Conservationists

Photo: From agriculture to aquaculture: class observes oyster seeding bed in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey.

From agriculture to aquaculture: class observes oyster seeding bed in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey.

An unfortunate reality in agriculture is that farmers and conservationists are likely more foe than friend. Farmers resent the demands from people who care more about feathered and furry things than the survival of their business. Conservationists see closed-minded farmers as an obstacle to measures to benefit wildlife habitats. But if by some miracle they end up on the same side--then real magic can happen.

John Parke, the Stewardship Project Director for the Conservation Department of New Jersey Audubon Society, was asked to be a speaker for the Ag Leadership program. He was so struck by the course that he asked Dr. Nikola if he could stay on to observe the rest of the day's program. He went on to enroll in the next year's class and the relationship between ag and conservationists in New Jersey has since had a major coup.

The fact that his fellow classmate Ronnie Fisher, a garden center and farm market owner with a farm and greenhouse operation in Hammonton, NJ, proclaimed that because of Parke's participation in NJALDP he now "sees people from Audubon as real people rather than a menace, and he would now pick up the phone to see what they had to say," was enough to impress Parke with the impact of the program. But it doesn't end there.

New Jersey Audubon had a few initiatives in the works to use local product for birdseed and feeder production. Parke's participation in NJALDP helped additional farmers enlist in the program and receive Jersey Grown certifications, which opened the door for new opportunities for farmers and NJ Audubon to collaborate on projects.

Photo: Growers participating in the Field to Flower initiative benefit from the spectacular views their fields provide.

Growers participating in the Field to Flower initiative benefit from the spectacular views their fields provide.

Raj Sinha of Liberty Farm in Sussex County, a fellow classmate, asked to be a sunflower seed producer and is now one of the biggest growers in the state. The Field to Feeder program not only provides New Jerseyans with locally grown birdseed, it also is an attraction and boost to sunflower growing farms. People line up along the side of the road to take in the breathtaking spectacle of a field of sunflowers and afterwards purchase farmstand produce.

While NJ Audubon's program of sustainable forestry gleans dead wood from the pinelands to reduce an environment conducive to forest fires, the scrap Atlantic white cedar is used to build birdhouses. Pine mulch, another useful product harvested in the pinelands maintenance is an excellent mulch for blueberries, typically mulched with imported peat moss from Canada or Europe. Not only would local pine mulch help maintain the desired pH for blueberries, it also controls weeds and prevents the spread of insects. Now Parke's formerly skeptical classmate Ronnie Fisher came into play. As a farmer in Hammonton, Ronnie knew a lot of blueberry growers. Connections were made and Parke is now waiting for the data from the farms from their first year's use of local pine mulch.

Parke admits that the biggest impact NJALDP had on him goes beyond any project, and those are the intangibles. "I have gained much knowledge and insight on all types of New Jersey agriculture from perspectives that I had previously either not considered or did not know enough about. This program had a major impact on how I do my job, the way I approach conservation issues, and I have a greater understanding on how certain conservation initiatives impact New Jersey ag," said Parke.

"I now have a better focus on how I can play a more significant role in preserving and enhancing agriculture industries in New Jersey and better recognize the connections between all types of farming while still preserving the integrity of natural ecosystems," he added.

Parke sums up the Ag Leadership program in a word: "Phenomenal!"


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences