It’s a question most rural America is being forced to examine. How do we economically preserve our farmlands? Even on this tiny peninsula of Cape May the question looms large, especially in the Borough of West Cape May — a place where old versus the new and farmland vies to maintain a place alongside “vacation-land.”
People have been vacationing on Cape Island for more than 200 years and residents have been farming the acreage here for much longer than that. In fact it was the availability of fresh food that was imperative to Cape May’s growth as a resort community.
A significant portion of the old farming acreage here has been, and continues to be, developed for private homes but most of the area still carries its old rural flavor. There are horses, cows, and acres upon acres of planted and fallow fields. The tiny Borough of West Cape May, incorporated in 1884, was home to many a dairy farmer until the early part of the twentieth-century when pasteurization became law — the mechanics of converting were too costly and farmers turned from cattle to crop.
Times haven’t changed much in West Cape May. Today, a good walk, a short bike ride or a five-minute car trip brings Cape May visitors into rural farmland — a certain suprise after spending time amid Cape May’s Victoriana, her beach and the boardwalk.
The 95-acres owned by Les and Diane Rea is largest of the active farms on Cape Island. They grow gladiolas, pumpkins, sunflowers, watermelon, cantaloupe and have about five acres of lima beans planted. The Reas run a vegetable stand and the farm is home to a flock of sheep, a couple of pigs and a duck. Over the 75 years the Rea family has been farming, they have also grown crops on land owned by others. The compensation received by these often non-resident landowners was a property classification that allowed low farmland tax rates.
Today, however, the Reas have had to cut back on the number of acres planted.
For decades, they had a contract with Hanover Foods to grow Fordhook lima beans and during that time there were as many as 1,000 acres planted with that vegetable alone. But when the corporation pulled out five years ago, the Reas gave up all large-scale commercial farming.
Now they’ve downsized to approximately 40 acres of maturing crops including tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables for their farm stand, created as a necessary income supplement.
Many residents have been fighting hard over the past 10 years to control and slow borough development in order to maintain the community’s rural serenity and historic integrity. The new owners of Steven’s Street Willow Creek Farm are currently seeking borough approval to build 21 houses. Willow Creek is directly next door to the Reas. And while those fighting development have generally failed to get local zoning changes enacted, they do have several allies.
Cape Island is one of the world’s most important stopovers in the annual bird migration. Because of this, environmental groups as well as the state and county governments have been working to keep as much land as possible either in its natural state or to be forever deeded as farmland.
The Reas became the first Cape Island property owners to deed-restrict their development rights to a large chunk of land. They gave up development rights to about 86 acres for which they were paid about $1.2 million, according to Diane Rea.
They closed on the deal last month under the Cape May County Development Easement Plan so the acreage will forever be farmland. The Reas still own the property and they can pass it on to their heirs, but it can never be used for anything except farming.
In another ecological advance, the Nature Conservancy recently purchased about 180 acres of Cape Island property east of Seashore Road that was primed for more than 20 new homes. Developers Jon Sachar and Greg Whissell received almost $1.9 million for the property.
Les Rea is also planting 30-foot wide strips of shrubbery along sections of his property under an arrangement with New Jersey Audubon. This is strictly for the birds.
The farm stand — strictly for people — is now in its fifth season and has something new each summer. Now there are homemade fruit pies to go along with an array of flowers, jellies, spaghetti sauce, plants, vegetables and herbs. The stand is located at the intersection of Bayshore Road and Stevens Street in West Cape May.
There are also several smaller farms in the area which specialize in vegetables, herbs and flowers.
The Sea Dragon Herbery, specializing in dried flowers, is owned by Karl and Jany Baymor, and located on tiny a Stevens Street farm just west of Bayshore Road near the Rea farm.
The couple took a second place ribbon for their dried flower display at the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show, earlier this year. Last year, their first at the show, they won a third place ribbon.
The Baymors partnered with the Reas in a crop of larkspur planted last fall. The crop was hand-harvested this spring and the fresh flowers were sold both on the wholesale market and at the Rea stand. Some were kept for drying.
Cape May Cut Flowers, owned by Patricia Bowman, is another Cape Island flower farm. Located south of the canal on Seashore Road in Lower Township, for the past six years the farm has offered live flowers for sale to individuals and for weddings and parties. Bowman has also been a beekeeper for 20 years and sells honey locally from her four hives.
The only things missing from this rural scene are hills — there are none on Cape Island. It is the country, rich at the roots, existing side-by-side with America’s oldest seaside resort.