Tractors, pigs invade Trenton to protest cuts

(04/01/08) TRENTON - Protests at the state Capitol are nothing new, but it's not every day that demonstrators use tractors, hay and farm animals to get their point across. One squealing piglet wore a T-shirt Tuesday that delivered their message succinctly: "Cut the Pork, Not the Department of Agriculture." Angered by the governor's proposal to eliminate the popular department, more than 1,000 farmers, nursery operators and supporters - many riding tractors or hauling landscaping equipment - rallied in front of the state Capitol. More than 100 tractors rumbled into downtown Trenton, many bearing signs reading "Save the Garden State. Keep the NJ Dept of Agriculture." They were joined by teen members of the Future Farmers of America Association, some of whom clutched pigs they raised to make their point. Farmers say the agriculture department gives them a voice in government, enables them to get federal grants and preserve their land, helps future farmers get training and helps established ones learn new techniques. Faced by a $2.7 billion budget gap, Gov. Jon S. Corzine proposed eliminating the Agriculture Department and having the environmental protection and health departments take over its functions. New Jersey would join Alaska and Rhode Island as the only states without an agriculture department, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. Corzine said the move would save $4 million by having the environmental protection and health departments take over the agriculture department's functions. Speakers at Tuesday's rally - including several state lawmakers - argued the closing would save very little money, make it harder for farmers to stay in business, jeopardize school lunch programs and food distribution for the needy, and damage quality of life in the Garden State. Some noted the department also handles pest control, livestock inspection and disease monitoring, disaster preparation and other crucial programs. "I don't think that Gov. Corzine gets it ... He doesn't realize that farming is the third-biggest business in the Garden State," said Assemblyman Mike Doherty of Warren County. "We cannot eat without farmers and that's why we need to save the Department of Agriculture." Ed Overdevest, of Overdevest Nursery in Upper Deerfield got the crowd chanting, "It doesn't make sense," as he asked rhetorical questions about why the Agriculture Department always gets disproportionate cuts when the budget gets tight. "We can stop this horrible move," Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow of Warren County told the fired-up crowd to loud cheers. Assemblyman Doug Fisher, whose district includes parts of three big farming counties, told the crowd the state has some of the world's best farmers. "New Jerseyans have told us, 'This is the Garden State and we want to keep the Department of Agriculture,"' he said. Among the future farmers at the rally was Annaliese Gancarz, 18, of Jacobstown, whose family runs a greenhouse and nursery called Robert Gancarz Farm. She came with fellow FFA member Julianne Robinson, 15, who brought her two baby pigs, including the one wearing a black T-shirt with white lettering reading, "Cut the Pork." "We came out here to support all the farmers and keep the Department of Agriculture because it affects us all," Gancarz said, adding she's worried that eliminating the department would cut support for FFA and school agriculture programs such as hers at Northern Burlington Regional High School.