A primer on how New Jersey picks its Secretary of Agriculture

An obscure deal with South Jersey to get votes for the ratification of the New Jersey State Constitution in 1947 will give Gov. Phil Murphy limited say over the selection of one of his cabinet members, the Secretary of Agriculture when Douglas Fisher vacates the post to seek a return to the State Assembly.

The State Board of Agriculture makes the appointment, and the governor merely approves their pick.  This is a throwback to an era when state boards exercised considerable authority, especially in health, education, the environment, and alcoholic beverage control.

Members of the state’s agriculture community elect the eight members of the Board of Agriculture at the annual State Agricultural Convention.   The governor traditionally appoints the choices of the convention to four-year terms on the Board, with the advise and consent of the State Senate.  Unlike other cabinet posts, where the Commissioner runs the department, the SOA is essentially the secretary to the Board.

The Board of Agriculture sets policies that the Secretary of Agriculture and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture follow.

State law gives the top four commodity groups in the state, based on a “two-year average of the gross value of production,” seats on the Board.   Right now, vegetable farmers have two seats, with one seat each for dairy, fruits, hay and grain, livestock, vegetable, and aquaculture farmers each getting one seat.

Some governors have maneuvered their way through the process to press the Board of Agriculture to accept their candidate, especially when the agricultural community understands the politics.

In 1982, when the post opened up for the first time in 36 years, newly-elected Gov. Thomas Kean picked Atlantic County Agricultural Agent Arthur Brown, who was popular with South Jersey farmers in his own right.  Kean and Brown had an influential ally in then-Assemblyman Bill Gormley (R-Margate), who was skilled in the power of persuasion.

Brown remained in the post for 20 years; when he retired, the state board picked Charles Kuperus, a farmer and Republican freeholder from Sussex County, to replace him.  At the time, New Jersey Sierra Club President Jeff Tittlel opposed the choice, saying Kuperus and the board were too cozy with developers buying farmland.

But the new governor, Democrat James E. McGreevey, signed off on Kuperus after receiving assurances that he would support the administration’s mission to preserve farmland.

Kuperus resigned at the end of 2008,  ten months after Gov. Jon Corzine announced in his budget address that he would eliminate the Department of Agriculture.   Fisher opposed the proposal, and Corzine later backed off when the legislature agreed to cut the department’s budget by $500,000 as long as the Secretary of Agriculture remained a cabinet-level post.

A deal was worked out where the agriculture board name Fisher, then serving his fourth term as a Democratic assemblyman from the 3rd legislative district, to serve as the new Secretary of Agriculture.   One of the key players in that deal was then-Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney, Fisher’s running mate.

A year later, after Corzine lost re-election, Gov.-elect Chris Christie planned to replace Fisher with Hal Wirths, then a Sussex County freeholder.  He believed he had the support of the Board of Agriculture to make the switch.

But Sweeney, the incoming Senate President, pushed Christie to keep Christie.  Instead, Christie named Wirths as his Commissioner of Labor.

Gov. James Fielder created the New Jersey Department of Agriculture in 1916 and named a Rutgers agriculture professor, Alva Agee, the first secretary.  Nine years later, Agree left and was succeeded in 1925 by William Duryee, a peach farmer from Upper Freehold who wielded political clout as a state Milk Control Board member.

(The Milk Control Board was formed at the suggestion of Gov. A. Harry Moore in 1933 to regulate the production and distribution of milk, set dairy prices, and prevent New York dairies from interfering with the New Jersey market.  Duryee was the first chairman.)

Duryee was succeeded in 1938 by Willard Allen, a poultry farmer from Hunterdon County and a professor at Rutgers’ College of Agriculture.  He remained in the post under five governors before retiring for health reasons in 1956.

Phillip Alampi, a former TV farm reporter for ABC and NBC in New York, replaced Duryee in 1956 and held the post until his retirement in 1982.  Alampi is the longest-serving member of the governor’s cabinet in state history.

The 75-year-old Fisher, a former Cumberland County freeholder, plans to reunite with Burzichelli on the Democratic ticket this year – they were running mates in 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007.    He is just the seventh New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture in 107 years.

It will be a race to see if Murphy comes up with his own candidate, or if the Board of Agriculture picks its candidate first.

The Secretary of Agriculture and Commissioner of Labor are the only two cabinet posts to never be occupied by a woman or a non-white person.

Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Monique Purcell, a 27-year employee of the department and the former director of the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, might have emerged as a candidate for the post, but she retired last year.

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