RARITAN TWP. -- Jeff Bowlby, a Raritan Township hay and grain producer, has been chosen as New Jersey’s 2018 Outstanding Young Farmer by the state Board of Agriculture. He was honored at the New Jersey State Agricultural Convention in Atlantic City.

Bowlby, a son of Ron and Kathy Bowlby, has been officially involved in agriculture since at age 13, when he started milking cows for neighbor Charles Rogers. While Jeff is 40 and some don’t consider that “young,” it is really since the average Garden State farmer is close to 60, according to the Census data.

While at Hunterdon Central High School, he worked for Terraceland Farms in East Amwell Township, owned by Greg Manners, as part of a work-study program of the Future Farmers of America, under the guidance of teacher Pat Hilton. It was there that he began learning about growing and marketing hay, grain production, soil conservation and fertilization.

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In 2009, he grew a few acres of soybeans in partnership with his brother, Greg, and uncle, Bill, that served as the beginning of realizing his dream of farming for himself. In 2011, he began renting 55 acres of land that were coming out of a Conservation Resource Program and started growing corn on it. By 2014, he had expanded his rented land to 155 acres, while continuing to farm 30-plus acres of soybeans with his relatives and assisting with 800 acres for Terraceland. In 2015, Manners informed Bowlby that he was downsizing his operation and that after 25 years, it was Bowlby’s turn.

Today, he manages 550 acres of land, much of it rented from the property owners who had previously rented to Terraceland. He’s raised mainly hay, corn and soybeans, along with lesser amounts of wheat, rye, oats and other crops. Most of the hay goes to area horse owners and a lot of grain is sold to the Belle Mead Co-op to be turned into livestock feed, he said. Corn goes primarily to markets in Lancaster, Pa., also for feed.

His paternal grandparents were Don and Lil Bowlby, and he now lives in their former farmhouse on Reaville Road. He shares their commitment to community involvement. Jeff has been on the Hunterdon County Board of Agriculture (which nominated him for the award) for the last 10 years, including serving as first vice-president, and on the Hunterdon County 4-H and Agricultural Fair Board of Directors the last nine years. He received the FFA's American Farmer degree many years ago.

“Growing up on our family farm, I ate, slept and breathed the farm life, as I still do. I was always here. I remember sitting on the tractor fender and riding with my grandfather when I was 5 or 6 years old,” he said. He graduated from Central in 1996 and with help from a scholarship went on to Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pa., studying agronomy and crop science.

“I have never even considered another career path as the everyday challenges that this occupation provides are exciting and invigorating. No two days are ever the same. My goal was always to farm on my own.” Now, “I go to work to every day, but it's not really work because I love what I do,” he remarked.

“Jeff Bowlby is a hard-working, creative farmer who always has had a passion for farming,” said state Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher. “He is setting an example of what it takes to build a successful agricultural career with his own ingenuity and determination. It is farmers with this type of vision and dedication that will help keep New Jersey agriculture alive well into the future.”

While Bowlby has made his dream of farming on his own come true, he also knows he could not have started realizing that dream without the help of others. “The knowledge and experience I was given by Mr. Manners is an invaluable gift,” he said. “In a way, it was also a gift when he decided to downsize, that he considered me first when thinking of renting the land. That removed a number of variables. I also was fortunate enough to have some farming neighbors who would allow me to borrow their equipment until I could find what I was looking for and secure funding for it.”

Water and soil conservation have also played an important role in his farming success. Soil conservation practices allow him to build up organic matter, which creates environmentally rich soil so plants can thrive. “Conserving soil and water is the number-one priority for a successful crop,” he said.

“Several years ago, I changed my farming practices completely over to no-till or minimal tillage with a vertical tillage machine as I found it to be a great way of conserving soil and water. It was a big change for me. However, it didn’t take me long to realize the benefits of using this method and see overall improvements in soil health. The organic matter levels in my soil have increased and help the water movement in the clay-based soils that are prevalent in this area.”

The support from his wife Robin, who also has a passion for farming, is vital to the family business. She works on a horse boarding facility in East Amwell and on her days off, helps with paperwork and other tasks. In the spring, she runs the vertical tillage machine and helps move equipment. In the summer months, she rakes hay and helps unload the wagons. They have two young children, Justin, 6, and Samantha, 3.

The OYF program is the oldest farmer recognition program in the United States, with the first group of national winners selected in 1955. The goals are to foster better urban-rural relations through the understanding of farmers’ challenges, as well as the appreciation of their contributions and achievements; to bring about a greater interest in farmers and ranchers; and to help build an awareness of their importance and impact on America’s economy.