This article is the final installment of a three-part series, "It's Elemental: Air, Water and Earth in the State We're In."
New Jersey’s got a state bird (Eastern goldfinch), state tree (red oak), state flower (violet), state animal (horse) and even a state dinosaur (Hadrosaurus foulkii). Did you know it also has a state soil?
It’s called “Downer,” but it’s really more of an upper! It’s the most common soil type in New Jersey, found throughout the southern half of the state, and one reason we earned the nickname “the Garden State.”
Downer soils are deep, sandy and well-drained, and are developed from acidic, loamy Coastal Plain sediments. Downer soils support native forest lands - including those in the Pine Barrens - as well as vegetable and fruit crops.
“It’s the base for New Jersey’s woodlands and high-value vegetables and fruits, such as peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, apples, asparagus, and sweet potatoes,” wrote soil scientist Wale Adewunmi. In addition, Downer soils are mined for a mineral called greensand, or glauconite, a valuable fertilizer. Downer soils also supply sand for glass-making, and sand and gravel for construction.
Soils types are called “series” (similar to “species” for animals and plants), and the Downer series was first recognized and established in 1960 in Gloucester County. This soil type covers 291,319 acres of land in 11 counties, or much of the southern half of this state we’re in.
Downer is just one of many soils in New Jersey. Because of our incredibly diverse geology and geography, there are about 85 named soils in the Garden State.
What exactly are soils? Quite simply, they’re the eroded and altered remains of “parent” rocks. In addition to weathered rock, soils are composed of other organic materials, water and gases.
Soils are considered a non-renewable resource, since it takes between 100 and 1,000 years for natural forces like rain, wind and freezing and thawing cycles to break down enough rock to create a mere half-inch of earth. Without soil, terrestrial plant life could not exist - nor could humans and other terrestrial animals.
For a healthy environment and locally grown foods, New Jersey’s best and most fertile soils need permanent protection. Over the past half-century, that protection has come in the form of programs to preserve the state’s productive farmland and its open space.
About a third of New Jersey’s 4.9 million acres has been developed, and another third has been preserved for open space and farmland. That leaves another third – approximately 2 million acres – in the balance.
In order for a farm to be preserved through New Jersey and U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, it must have high quality soils capable of growing a variety of crops. These soils are classified as prime, statewide, and unique or locally important.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farmland preservation program provides the highest level of protection for soils, as it places a limit on the amount of amount of impervious surface area on a farm. Minimizing the amount of roads and structures on agricultural land keeps it available for food production and allows for aquifer recharge.
Some farmland in New Jersey is preserved through the federal program, but most is protected under the state program that does not explicitly limit impervious surfaces.
New Jersey citizens have already taken action to keep preserving New Jersey’s most ecologically valuable and agriculturally productive lands. In 2014, Garden State voters passed a ballot question creating a permanent, sustainable source of land preservation funding.
On Jan. 16, New Jersey is getting a new governor who has pledged to make the health of the state’s water, air and land a priority.
To protect New Jersey’s best quality soils and the life they support, Governor-elect Murphy should strengthen the state’s farmland preservation program by including a limit on the amount of a preserved farm that can be covered by structures, roads and other impervious surfaces. He should also give his full support for continued preservation of our most productive farms and prime soils, and promote New Jersey’s ability to provide healthy, locally grown produce and agricultural products to residents, and schools and hospitals.
Conserving and managing soil as a natural resource has long been recognized as vital to our well-being. Eighty years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in a letter to all state governors, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
Roosevelt’s statement came during the 1930s “Dust Bowl,” when wind storms blew away drought-parched soil from the western plains. Soil protection is every bit as important today, as we face the impacts of global climate change.
How are soils where you live? For a great visualization, go to the Conservation Blueprint website at https://www.njmap2.com/blueprint/agriculture. Click the “Farmland soils” box and you’ll see a statewide map showing prime, statewide and unique or locally important soils. You’ll immediately understand why Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester counties are truly the state’s garden!
For more information, Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Cooperative Extension offices are a great resource on agriculture, soils, family and community health sciences, and natural resources and the environment. To find your county’s extension service, go to https://njaes.rutgers.edu/county/.
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