Consumers in New Jersey want local agricultural products and are looking for on-farm experiences. That's according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture released May 2.

Ray the Prize Guy /NJ1015

Farmer-direct sales to consumers through roadside stands, farmers' markets, pick-your-own and Community Supported Agriculture increased from $30.1 million in 2007 to $33.3 million in 2012 according to the census, which was last conducted in 2007.

New Jersey ranks 12th in the nation in direct sales, and 20 percent of New Jersey farms report some type of direct sales activity. In fact, 12 New Jersey counties are in the top 8 percent in the nation in direct sales and Salem County is in the top 0.5 percent, ranking 15th in the nation out of 3,077 U.S. counties, with $6.5 million in direct sales to consumers.

Meanwhile, the number of farms in New Jersey offering agritourism activities increased from 322 in 2007 to 347 in 2012. The Garden State ranks ninth in the nation in agritourism sales, and nine counties in the state rank in the top 10 percent in the nation in agritourism sales. Burlington County is in the top 2 percent, ranking 51st in the nation.

"The census of agriculture shows that New Jersey growers are uniquely positioned to be able to service both regional and local markets, bringing their produce directly to the consumers who clamor for it," New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher said in a press release Tuesday. "Our farmers and consumers benefit greatly from having productive farms close to the marketplace."

According to the census, New Jersey ranks fourth in the nation in the value of market products sold per acre at $1,408, more than three times the national average. Some data released in February showed the average New Jersey farm is larger and more productive than it was in 2007, with the average size increasing from 71 to 79 acres from 2007 to 2012. The market value of products sold on those farms went up from $95,564 to $111,030 per farm. In total, the market value of products sold on all New Jersey farms increased from $986.9 million to $1.01 billion.

"New Jersey farmers reached a record high in farm gate receipts in 2013," said Al Murray, assistant secretary of the state Department of Agriculture. "Most recent figures indicate that our farmers received a record $1.14 billion in farm gate receipts, which is the money that farmers receive for their products. It's the actual money that goes into their pockets. The locally grown trend has become white-hot, not just in New Jersey, but throughout the nation. Consumers are really interested in locally grown foods and in New Jersey, we produce over 100 different varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables. Because New Jersey is a melting pot of different ethnic groups, our farmers cater to those needs."

The census also broke down data by county. Salem County was the only one where the number of farms increased since the 2007 census. Bergen, Burlington, Salem and Somerset counties were the only counties were farm acreage increased.

Among the key findings in the report:

  • The number of farms with renewable energy producing systems in New Jersey more than doubled from 204 farms to 591 farms (most of those have solar panels). Six percent of New Jersey farms use solar panels, compared to less than 2 percent for U.S. farms.
  • In the greenhouse industry, square footage for nursery stock crops more than doubled from 7.8 million square feet to 16 million. And greenhouse tomatoes went from 162,000 square feet to 275,000.
  • With a burgeoning wine industry, the number of farms growing grapes increased from 192 to 197 and acres increased from 1,043 to 1,082.
  • New Jersey has the highest percentage of farms with horses east of the Rockies.
  • Bee colonies increased from 266 to 368; colonies increased from 10,926 to 13,298.  Pounds of honey increased from 474,013 to 579,738. Honey sales in 2012 were $1.1 million.
  • There were 94 aquaculture operations with $12.4 million in sales in 2012.
  • More farmers were using the Internet in 2012, increasing from 6,495 to 6,953 in 2012.
  • There is a lot of interest in conservation practices: 549 farms have 40,355 acres under conservation easement, 1,027 farms are using no-till practices on 88,180 acres of cropland, and 471 farms have 1,891 cover crop acres.