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Warren County farmers, environmentalists clash over renewable energy legislation

The proposed bill includes safeguards to ensure agriculture is the primary source of income on farms, said New Jersey Farm Bureau President Richard Nieuwenhuis, of White Township. Each acre of land devoted to renewable energy sources must correspond to 5 acres for agricultural or horticultural operations, according to the legislation. The State Agriculture Development Committee would have to sign off on the facilities on preserved farms, according to the legislation.

About 100 years after his great-grandfather traded his house in the eastern part of the state for a farm in Mansfield Township, Greg Donaldson turned to the sun to help keep the family business going.

Where Donaldson and his relatives grow fruits, vegetables and other crops, solar panels were installed on one rooftop about five years ago. The system covers about one-third of the energy costs for the farm stand and other nearby buildings on the non-preserved portion of his property.

Donaldson would like to see the expanded use of renewable energy sources on preserved farms -- those in government programs where farmers are paid not to allow development on the land -- as well. Farmers would be able to better offset their energy costs.

But with the chance also to make money in the process, some environmentalists and state agriculture officials say a farmer's income should be limited to what's coming out of the ground.

"Since the beginning of time, farmers have been looking for other sources of income," Donaldson said. "Solar will be constantly paying. Crops aren't always constantly paying."

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would broaden... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

About 100 years after his great-grandfather traded his house in the eastern part of the state for a farm in Mansfield Township, Greg Donaldson turned to the sun to help keep the family business going.

Where Donaldson and his relatives grow fruits, vegetables and other crops, solar panels were installed on one rooftop about five years ago. The system covers about one-third of the energy costs for the farm stand and other nearby buildings on the non-preserved portion of his property.

Donaldson would like to see the expanded use of renewable energy sources on preserved farms -- those in government programs where farmers are paid not to allow development on the land -- as well. Farmers would be able to better offset their energy costs.

But with the chance also to make money in the process, some environmentalists and state agriculture officials say a farmer's income should be limited to what's coming out of the ground.

"Since the beginning of time, farmers have been looking for other sources of income," Donaldson said. "Solar will be constantly paying. Crops aren't always constantly paying."

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would broaden the use of biomass, solar and wind energy on preserved farms. The legislation holds far-reaching implications for Warren County, last year's state leader in farmland preservation.

The legislation is pending final approval in the state Senate and is currently under review by the appropriations committee of the state Assembly.

'It's a positive step'

"It's a positive step for the state of New Jersey," said Robert Matarazzo, vice president of the State Board of Agriculture and owner of Four Sisters Winery in White Township. "Anything we can do to provide our own energy sources is a plus for us."

Renewable energy systems are currently permitted on preserved farms as long as the systems are designed to meet the needs of the agricultural operation, said Hope Gruzlovic, spokeswoman for the State Agriculture Development Committee, which oversees the state farmland preservation program.

Under the proposed legislation, owners of preserved farms can increase their energy capacity by 10 percent over the previous year's demand, but that calculation doesn't include energy generated from rooftop devices.

The State Agriculture Development Committee opposes generating energy in order to sell it, because that would be considered a non-agricultural use of the land and public money is used to purchase those rights on preserved farms, Gruzlovic said.

Alison Mitchell, director of policy for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said the proposed bill raises additional concerns about the impact of such facilities on the natural landscape and the farm's overall scenic qualities. The language in the legislation is too open-ended, Mitchell said.

"We'd prefer to see it first directed to places that are already developed or in need of redevelopment," Mitchell said.

Bill's safeguards touted

The proposed bill includes safeguards to ensure agriculture is the primary source of income on farms, said New Jersey Farm Bureau President Richard Nieuwenhuis, of White Township.

Each acre of land devoted to renewable energy sources must correspond to 5 acres for agricultural or horticultural operations, according to the legislation. The State Agriculture Development Committee would have to sign off on the facilities on preserved farms, according to the legislation.

"It's not like we're going to cover our fields with solar panels," Nieuwenhuis said. "We don't want to turn into (the) New Jersey farm electric company."

Republican legislators in the 23rd Legislative District, which covers Warren and Hunterdon counties, offered their support last week to the proposal.

Assemblyman John DiMaio said the legislation would help maintain farms as viable businesses. State Sen. Marcia Karrow added that preserving farms was pointless without the individuals being able to farm the land. Traditional agricultural practices could still occur amid the renewable energy activities, Karrow said.

"I think we need to think a little bit more out of the box," Karrow said.

One of the remaining obstacles to putting renewable energy sources on farms is the cost of the projects. Matarazzo said the costs for an average-sized farm range between $500,000 and $1 million.

"It hits you in the back of the head real fast," Matarazzo said.

Farmers can seek financial assistance through the state Board of Public Utilities' Clean Energy Program. Donaldson said his solar project cost $260,000, but through state rebates and the sale of renewable energy credits, the work is only costing him $60,000. His monthly bill is between 16 and 18 percent lower than what he would be paying the utility company.


Source: http://www.lehighvalleylive...

MAY 3 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/20111-warren-county-farmers-environmentalists-clash-over-renewable-energy-legislation
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