One squealing piglet wore a T-shirt Tuesday that delivered their message succinctly: "Cut the Pork, Not the Department of Agriculture."
Angered by the governor's proposal to eliminate the popular department, more than 1,000 farmers, nursery operators and supporters — many riding tractors or hauling landscaping equipment — rallied in front of the state Capitol.
More than 40 farmers from Sussex County took the trip down to Trenton.
"A little bit of rain is not going to deter a farmer," said Sussex County Freeholder Glen Vetrano, who also attended the event.
Vetrano, who runs a "small operation" raising some animals in Hampton, said he applauds Corzine "for putting these issues on the table to talk about," but said equal cuts should be made to all departments rather than eliminate the one for agriculture.
New Jersey's Secretary of Agriculture Charles Kuperus, a resident of Sussex, said he will continue to manage the department on a day-to-day basis — including promoting farmers markets and the Jersey Fresh brand, and combating what may be "the biggest gypsy moth infestation in many years." The decision to maintain or consolidate his department, he said, "is very much in the Legislature's hands," though the turnout Tuesday was "impressive."
Fredon farmer Jim Hunt said he was encouraged to see farmers from the southern part of the state, and some of their Democrat representatives, appear for the protest and provide a balance to the more Republican counties in the north.
More than 100 tractors rumbled into downtown Trenton, some bearing signs reading "Save the Garden State. Keep the NJ Dept of Agriculture." The scene resembled a county fair: Someone dressed as a blueberry, one of the state's top export crops, stood near a big, plexiglass horse. Two teenagers skipped school and clutched piglets they are raising to join the protest.
Farmers say the agriculture department gives them a voice in government, enables them to get federal grants and preserve their land, helps future farmers get training and helps established ones learn new techniques.
Faced by a $2.7 billion budget gap, Gov. Jon S. Corzine wants to save $4 million by eliminating the Agriculture Department and having the environmental protection and health departments take over its functions.
Corzine said he understood the anger of farmers, but hoped it would be aimed toward past legislative spending decisions that he said wrecked state finances.
"We don't intend to turn our backs on the farmers," Corzine said. "The fact is that we don't have the revenues to support the government services that we make today."
Sen. Steve Oroho, R-24, said he found it "appalling" that Corzine wants to eliminate the Department of Agriculture while continuing to pay for attorneys to analyze other parts of his budget proposals. While cutting the department would save about $500,000, Oroho said in a statement that a "politically connected" law firm was paid about $9 million to study Corzine's proposal to raise fees on New Jersey toll roads.
New Jersey would be the third state to eliminate the state agriculture department, joining Alaska and Rhode Island, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Speakers at Tuesday's rally argued the closing would save little money, make it harder for farmers to stay in business, jeopardize school lunch programs and food distribution for the needy, and damage quality of life in the Garden State. Some noted the department also handles pest control, livestock inspection and disease monitoring and disaster preparation.
Farmers weren't the only ones who turned out to protest the governor's plan. Several state lawmakers were among those who spoke at the rally.
"I don't think that Gov. Corzine gets it ... He doesn't realize that farming is the third-biggest business in the Garden State," said Assemblyman Mike Doherty of Warren County. "We cannot eat without farmers."
Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow of Warren County said the department is crucial to organic farming, the state's fastest-growing farm segment, because it certifies which fruits and vegetables can be marketed as organically grown.
Ed Overdevest, of Overdevest Nursery in Upper Deerfield got the crowd chanting, "It doesn't make sense," as he asked rhetorical questions about why the Agriculture Department gets disproportionate cuts when the state budget gets tight.
Assemblyman Doug Fisher, whose district includes parts of three big farming counties, told the crowd the state has some of the world's best farmers.
"New Jerseyans have told us, 'This is the Garden State and we want to keep the Department of Agriculture,"' he said.
Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose of Sussex County told the fired-up crowd it's not too late to save the department. "We can stop this horrible move," she said.
Among the many future farmers in the crowd was Annaliese Gancarz, 18, of Jacobstown, whose family runs a nursery. She came with fellow FFA member Julianne Robinson, 15, who brought her two baby pigs.
"We came out here to support all the farmers and keep the Department of Agriculture because it affects us all," Gancarz said, adding she's worried eliminating the department would cut support for FFA and school agriculture programs such as hers at Northern Burlington Regional High School.
Kristina Tillou, 18, who plans a career as a cattle farmer and large animal veterinarian, came with a group of girls and women wearing T-shirts reading "Jersey Farmers, Jersey Fresh," referring to a popular agriculture department program that promotes New Jersey's fresh produce.
Tillou said she is worried about spending cuts for 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs.
"We need the department," she said.