Readington, NJ: A dying farm town and its controversial new shopping center

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Ten years from now, farmer Dick Musgrove and his wife want to build a business on their 2.5-acre plot in Readington, N.J. As these small-farm towns continue to lose their dedicated practitioners, as the rising cost of farming stifles entrepreneurial activity, and as city dwellers increasingly favor their health over their wallets, the Musgroves’ objective is to reinvest in the community and help bring new residents. The plans for the Musgroves’ farm, which will include a seven-seat diner, small brewpub, and a beauty parlor, will protect their own property from urban sprawl and comply with Readington’s comprehensive zoning code. Today, a reader in Reading, Pa., Erica Munro, comments that: “I wish there was someone closer to where I lived who’d stop by their local farmer market to talk about new ways to support the farmers and local businesses of Readington.”

Thirty years ago, a bustling, well-coordinated farm community would be found everywhere; no more. In every state but Wisconsin, today’s farmers’ markets consist of just one or two farmers at most; those that do cater mostly to schoolkids, school-based food vendors, and nutrition-focused vendors. These “shops” are managed by state and federal ag programs, often with massive infusions of taxpayer dollars.

In the broader economy, American farms are also transitioning away from the land they are currently sitting on, embracing business technologies, production techniques, and government mandates. They are being pushed out of their homes, families, and communities by a rapidly changing food system. Many small farms are unable to adapt in time, and the most vulnerable are being pushed out and literally pushed into poverty.

The lack of farmer participation in their local communities – out of pocket, the farmers could easily supplement their income while providing a unique experience for visitors – and in the middle of an increasingly post-industrial agricultural economy, makes larger scale investments in the local economy much more difficult. This imbalance is also driving the biggest development in the county’s history – currently under consideration by the Readington Township Planning Board.

The South Hackett Crossing development is essentially a mass of new construction, with approximately 30,000 square feet of retail space on every corner. It would be built on parcels of land that formerly belonged to Readington’s oldest corn producer. As a result, Readington has promised a public feeding and farm stand operated by local farmers, as well as a wildlife habitat reserve and walking trails. But instead of a vibrant farm community that can thrive in its current setting, South Hackett Crossing would kill Readington’s unique farm life.

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