PISCATAWAY – The average age of a New Jersey farmer is 62, said James Giamarese, chair of the Middlesex County Agriculture Development Board.
And there is more than 5,000 acres of preserved farmland in Middlesex County, but the next generation of farmers is not there.
“We have land, but where are the young people?” said Giamarese, who added he is the last of his family to work on his East Brunswick-based farm. “It is really important that we have young farmers coming in. We don’t have any young people following us up.”
Giamarese believes the new workforce training program at Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools (MCVTS) will help fill the void.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., joined local officials and educators at MCVTS’ Piscataway campus on Thursday to announce the creation of the Agricultural and Aquacultural Workforce Training Program.
The new program will focus on agricultural and seafood industry workforce development, helping train the next generation of farmers and fishermen, Pallone said.
“By building a cutting-edge training program to train people interested in entering the agricultural industry, we can ensure a pipeline which will develop not only the farm hands, but the farm owners, of the future,” Giamarese said. “The rewards are tremendous.”
Career and technical training provide alternatives to students who may not want to go to a four-year college or university, Pallone said.
“I think it’s really important as part of our community workforce,” Pallone said. “In Congress, we really have been trying pay it to pay attention to the idea that not everybody has to go to college and that technical training, vocational training can lead to careers that are just as important — maybe even more important than going to college.
The congressman stressed that these career paths must be “affordable ones if people are actually able to take advantage of them.”
Pallone secured funding — $300,200 — for the program in a federal spending bill that was signed into law in March.
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“This is going to be to develop the next generation of farmers and fishermen trained in emerging technology,” Pallone said. “It’s going to be to overhaul current farm education programs, expand workplace learning and industry partnerships to create the workforce of tomorrow in these fields of agriculture, or farming. It goes into curriculum development, educational materials, teacher training, so that we’re preparing the next generation of farmers, fishermen, agricultural specialists for the future, and partnerships with the private sector.”
Middlesex County Commissioner Director Ronald Rios said MCVTS, the first county school system in the nation, continues to “set standards for educating students of all ages and circumstances” as it evolves.
“These funds secured will be used to establish an updated Food Innovation Education Program,” Rios said. “Our new Food Innovation program will inspire the next generation of farmers and fishermen teaching leading edge techniques using the latest technology to be environmentally friendly and efficient.”
The program also will help address food insecurity in Middlesex County, Pallone said.
“We want people to be able to access fresh agricultural products,” he said. “If we don’t have people that go into agriculture, we don’t have people that go into fishing, then we’re not going to have fresh fish, we’re not going to have fresh agricultural products.”
“Often, fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult items for our food pantries to collect, as they do not have as long a shelf life as canned, boxed, or prepared goods,” said Wilhelmina Bryant, Piscataway North Stelton AME Church’s director of the James O. Bryant Food Pantry. “This exciting new educational program will fill a need for us by supplying us with additional fresh fruits and vegetables — grown right here by our students – to provide to residents in need.”
In addition to educational benefits, Rios said the program offers economic advantages.
“Students in this multifaceted program will not only learn about cutting edge farming and fishing methods here in the Garden State but about food innovation and various aspects of food sales and distribution,” he said. “The end result will be a sustainable workforce to count for the county’s agricultural industry and the region’s seafood industry. It supports the transition of farmlands from one generation to the next and the continued establishment of the small businesses that are vital to economic success.”
Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact: Cmakin@gannettnj.com or @CherylMakin.