New Jersey Farmers Thrive in a Crowd

Top-Ranked NCGA Yield Contestant Succeeds Despite Farming in Crowded New Jersey

Joel Reichenberger
By  Joel Reichenberger , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Sam Santini is the third generation of his family to make his living in the New Jersey dirt. Farming in the country's most population-dense state has its complications, but it hasn't slowed him from posting some of the best yields in the nation. (DTN photo by Joel Reichenberger)

STEWARTSVILLE, N.J. (DTN) -- The two-lane highway that leads to Sam Santini's headquarters outside Stewartsville, New Jersey curves around a tight corner and ducks under a low railroad bridge. Santini eased back on the throttle of his S760 John Deere combine as he approached.

"You want to know what farming in New Jersey is like?" he asked, a grin spreading across his face. "Check this out."

He continued forward, but at a crawl, creeping under the old bridge. He craned his neck to see out the cab and glanced at every mirror again and again.

He tapped the brakes and stopped right underneath for effect.

The combine fit, but by mere inches, a modern-day machine just barely managing to co-exist with the most population-dense state in the United States, perhaps a fitting metaphor for agriculture itself in the Garden State. The U.S. has a population density of 93 people per square mile. In New Jersey, it's 1,283.

New Jersey's row-crop farmers know what you think. Or, perhaps, they know you don't think, not about corn farmers in New Jersey, theoretically a land of shopping malls and Bruce Springsteen, not corn fields and grain bins.

"People think the only thing we grow out here is concrete," said Leonard Truszkowski, a New Jersey-based winner in the 2021 National Corn Yield Contest.

But there they are all the same, squeaking machinery under infrastructure that can be more than a century old and around ever-encroaching development that's been threatening their families' heritage for decades.


The Santini family has been farming in New Jersey for 101 years. Sam's the third generation. He and his wife, Chris, raised the fourth generation, adult daughters Carly and Stephanie, on the same ground originally settled a century ago.

The plot near the railroad bridge is fairly representative of what the family deals with.

It's not a large field in the first place and it's divided by several tree lines. Still, at nearly 90 acres, it's one of their largest single units of land.

It sits across the street from a neighborhood filled with nice houses, well-kept yards and a dozen private swimming pools. And it sits on what's known as "The Concrete Mile," the state's first mile of concrete road, laid down in 1912 by Thomas Edison's cement company.

To sum up, it's small, it's adjacent to suburban development and it has plenty of history, three regular traits in the area.

In all, Santini farms 1,600 acres in 65 different fields, an average size of 24 acres. His smallest is just 2 acres, and sometimes he wonders if it's worth the trouble to maintain 2 acres of production. At the same time, he's unwilling to give any agricultural land up, because in the most population-dense state in the country, there's not any more agricultural ground coming.

"There is only so much land in New Jersey, and you have warehouses and solar panels and everything else that's eating all the land up," Santini said.

He tends to lose a little land every year, and even now some of his rental ground is under contract to be built out as solar and warehouse projects. Even he's not immune from the pressure. He turned over a 60-acre plot he owned to a solar contract several years ago.

"What they can offer compared to what I can offer to farm it, there's just no comparison," he said. "We have more ground we farm under contract right now for solar, but hey, what can you do?"

Santini rents about half the ground he farms and is constantly looking to add a little to counter what he's losing. That switch of crop ground to development is a concern throughout the region.

"In the last five years, the pressure from warehouses and solar has grown exponentially," said Christian Bench, a senior ag specialist with the North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development Council and the USDA's Natural Resources Conversation Services.

"There are small fields, deer pressure, development pressure, solar pressure. That's a big problem in this area. We've tried to protect and preserve as much land as we can in northern New Jersey and in New Jersey in its entirety, but we still have those pressures to face," he said.

He estimated 1/3 of the ag land in his area has gone over to development in the last five years alone.

"It's not good. It's not a good direction," Bench said.


Still, "the Garden State" is not on the verge of losing any claim to its moniker.

New Jersey is the most population-dense state in the nation, and it's not particularly close. Sometimes that means what one might assume. Developed metro areas adjacent to Philadelphia in the southern part of the state and New York City in the north give way to vast stretches of suburbia, and smaller pockets of development, many dating back to America's colonial era, are sprinkled densely throughout the state, bottom to top.

Sometimes, however, it doesn't fit the stereotype, and agriculture is deeply woven into the landscape.

New Jersey farms produce more than 100 different kinds of crops and are near the top nationally in growing fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, bell peppers, apples and asparagus, to name a few.

Its acres for the likes of corn, soybeans and wheat are minimal, less than 200,000 total acres. The 76,000 acres planted to corn in 2022 could be a rounding error in many Midwest states. That corn acreage was surpassed by 60 different counties in Illinois alone.

But farms are strewn across the state, set between centuries-old towns, with nearly 10,000 operations in all. The further west someone looks, the less likely they are to realize what state they're actually in.

"People think of New Jersey when they land in Newark airport. They go to New York to sightsee and whatnot and do the tourism thing, but they never come west into New Jersey, to the really nice parts, like Hunterdon county and Warren county," Bench said.


The challenges of the region dictate plenty about how the Santinis farm. Sam sticks to a six-row header on his combine, for instance, to make trips like that one under the railroad bridge possible.

They're often restricted on what and where they can spray, especially when it comes to aerial application. Several of their farms are not just across the street from suburban neighborhoods, but planted in the midst of them and school children sometimes pause and watch the Santini hay operation en route to the school bus stop.

Things were different 30 years ago. The Santinis ran a dairy at that point, one of many in the area, and they had a very limited grain operation.

It wasn't all that different from the operation Sam's grandfather, Dominic, had set up when he settled on the farm in 1922, still fresh from Ellis Island and his native Italy. Dominic had started with just 13 acres and into the 1980s, the Santinis oversaw several hundred.

But by the 2000s, the math was changing fast on the dairy business.

"There was just no more market here," Sam said. "I had 150 dairy cows. If you don't milk 1,000 or more, it doesn't pay to be a dairy farmer in New Jersey."

Sam started trying to grow his acreage from 200 acres in the late 1970s -- when he started entering the National Corn Yield Contest, held by the National Corn Growers Association -- to enough to make a row crop operation sustainable. He finally gave up the dairy in 2010 and continued pushing to add more land.

It isn't as diversified as other corners of the state's agricultural output. The Santinis stick to largely corn, soybeans and grain sorghum with their only dalliance in anything more unique being a large pumpkin patch next to their house and headquarters.

That part of the operation is run by his daughter, Carly, and her husband, Jeff Barlieb.


Where the focus is on row crops, Jersey soil and its farmers have proven to be the match of nearly any location in the country.

Santini has been a regular in the NCGA contest rankings for nearly 45 years. The first time he won the state yield title, in 1978, he did so with 125 bushels per acre (bpa). He kept improving his practices, honing his high-yield aspirations into a hobby. He passed 150 and 200 bpa, then eventually 300. His best came in 2020, 382 bpa.

"That crop just had the right timing," he said. "The moisture, that's the main thing. I feed the crop. I take care of it, and if we get moisture at the right time, that'll compete with most of the United States on dryland."

He hit 312 in 2022 despite drought in the region, winning the conventional dryland category in the state and placing third in that division nationally.

He's just as prolific in sorghum, where his best is 232 bpa and he's also regularly at the top of the nationwide yield contest.

The goal for corn is now 400 bpa. He's always tinkered with his approach, new ways to plant or fertilize, and he has ideas for the 2023 crop, albeit not ideas he's ready to share publicly.

One of his more radical recent attempts was 15-inch rows. He tried it for five years, but his yields couldn't keep up nationally. He switched back to 30 and almost immediately raised his best crop, that personal-best 382-bpa yield.

"I still believe in the future of 15-inch row corn," he said. "They're breeding corn now to be shorter and that's going to work a lot better in 15-inch rows. I'm going to try again at some point."

Despite some of the headaches, he insists he's in the right place to continue to aim high, and even, despite the ever-present pressures, maintain the opportunity for a farming lifestyle for his children, Carly and Stephanie, and grandchildren, who would be the fifth generation to make their lives in the Jersey dirt.

"There's enough preserved land. They may have to farm it a little different, maybe go into more vegetables, but there's going to be enough land here to farm if they want to farm," he said.

So, even if he has to be careful pulling under railroad bridges, Santini said he's perfectly fine farming in a state known for seemingly anything but.

"I was born here," he said, "and I don't plan on leaving."

Joel Reichenberger can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @JReichPF

Joel Reichenberger