When the state Attorney General holds a news conference to announce an important court ruling, it generally means dirty business like murder, theft, arson or drugs.

Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa’s press conference on Aug. 15 was extraordinary in that it literally involved dirt – specifically, the soil on preserved farmland in Franklin Township, Hunterdon County.

Superior Court Judge Peter A. Buchsbaum found that the owner of Quaker Valley Farms, a commercial plant grower, destroyed at least 14 acres of prime farmland in 2007 when he leveled fields and removed soil in order to build greenhouses for growing flowers and landscape plants. The property had been preserved 14 years earlier under the state’s Farmland Preservation Program.

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”The court's decision in this case is an important legal victory for the state,” Chiesa said. “It affirms the obligations of farm owners to comply with the state's farmland preservation laws, and recognizes the state's right to sue to enforce those obligations in order to preserve the farm for future generations.”

So what’s the big deal about moving dirt?

For starters, dirt, or soil, is a lot more complex than many folks realize. Made up of a delicate balance of minerals and organic matter, healthy soil is home to millions of organisms, from earthworms and insects to microscopic bacteria and fungi. It takes approximately 500 years for nature to produce just one inch of soil!

Healthy soil grows the food that sustains human life; it’s been said that all that stands between humans and starvation is six inches of topsoil. "A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself," said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Hunterdon County soil that was destroyed to make way for greenhouses was rated as prime, meaning it’s capable of supporting a wide range of crops and plants, like wheat, corn, soybeans, oats, barley and hay. Once the land was preserved, any activity that detrimental to soil conservation or continued agricultural use was prohibited.

In his decision, Judge Buchsbaum found that a farm’s soil content and its ability to support agriculture and agricultural production are at the very core of farmland preservation. The ruling says, essentially, that we must treat our prime soils on preserved farmland like the valuable, finite resource it is.

All over the Garden State, “Preserved Farmland” signs with distinctive barn logos mark preserved farms. New Jersey taxpayers have made a significant financial investment in making sure lands with top-quality soil are available for agriculture forever.

The Attorney General’s announcement, on behalf of the State Agriculture Development Committee, sends the right message. Assaults on our preserved farmland and vital soils will not be tolerated!

To learn more about soil health, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nature Resources Conservation Service website at http://soils.usda.gov/sqi.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org