Farmer Finds Success in Densely Populated State

New Jersey Farmer Thrives in a Crowd

Joel Reichenberger
By  Joel Reichenberger , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Sam Santini farms 65 different fields amongst subdivisions and neighborhoods in population-dense New Jersey. (Joel Reichenberger)

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

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

Santini continues forward but at a crawl, creeping under the old bridge. He cranes his neck to see out the cab and glances at every mirror again and again.

He taps the brakes and stops right underneath for effect.

The combine fit, but by mere inches, a modern-day machine just barely managing to coexist 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.

Row-crop farmers here know the rest of the farming world doesn't think much of their state when it comes to agriculture.

"People think the only thing we grow out here is concrete," says New Jersey farmer Leonard Truszkowski, a winner in the 2021 National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) National Corn Yield Contest.

But, there they are all the same, squeezing machinery under century-old infrastructure and between ever-encroaching development, complications that have been threatening their families' livelihoods for decades.

GROWING CHALLENGES

The Santini family has been farming in New Jersey for 102 years. Sam Santini is 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.

The field 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, causing him to sometimes wonder if such a small parcel is worth the trouble to maintain. At the same time, he's unwilling to give any agricultural land up because there's not any more agricultural ground coming back.

"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 says.

He tends to lose a little land every year, rental ground seemingly always under contract to be built out as solar and warehouse projects. Even Santini isn't 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 says. "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 more 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," says Christian Bench, a senior ag specialist with the North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development Council, and the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"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 explains.

Bench estimates one-third 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," he says.

EARNING THE NICKNAME

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

New Jersey's population density 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 from bottom to top.

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

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

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

But, farms are strewn across the state, set between centuries-old towns, with nearly 10,000 operations in all. The further west you travel, the less likely you are to realize what state you'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 says.

BUILDING A LEGACY

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

The family farmers are 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 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 limited grain operation.

It wasn't all that different from the operation Santini's grandfather, Dominic, 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," Santini says. "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."

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

It isn't as diversified as other corners of the state's agricultural output. The Santinis stick largely to 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.

PLANNING AHEAD

Where the focus is on row crops, New Jersey soil and its farmers have proven to be a competitive 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 cropping practices, honing his high-yield aspirations into a hobby. He passed 150 and 200 bpa, then eventually 300. His best came in 2020, yielding 382 bpa.

"That crop just had the right timing," he says. "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."

Santini hit 343 bpa in 2023, placing third nationally in the conventional dryland category and making the most of a year that was dry early, wet late and aided, he says, by a month of Canadian wildfire smoke in the middle.

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. Santini has always tinkered with his approach, new ways to plant or fertilize, and he has ideas for upcoming crops, 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 yields couldn't keep up. He switched back to 30-inch and almost immediately raised his best crop, a personal best at 382 bpa.

"I still believe in the future of 15-inch row corn," he says. "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, Santini insists he's in the right place to continue to aim high and, despite the ever-present pressures, maintain the opportunity for a farming lifestyle for his children and grandchildren, who would be the fifth generation to make their lives in the New 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 says.

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

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

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