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MILLVILLE, N.J. (AP) _ The Garden State has taken on new meaning as more New Jersey farmers raise ``crops'' for lawns and gardens instead of for the kitchen table.

Fueled by factors from suburban sprawl to economics, the nursery business has become the biggest part of New Jersey agriculture, leaving the exalted Jersey tomato in the dust. Nursery sales account for roughly 40 percent of farm revenues, nearly double the once-dominant category of vegetables, sweet corn and melons.

The number of farmers with nursery and greenhouse crops jumped from 1,235 with a combined $91 million in annual revenues in 1982 to 2,826 with total sales of $278 million in 1997, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

New blood is keeping New Jersey's nursery business growing. While some farmers are diversifying into more lucrative nursery products, people from other walks of life are trying farming for the first time by opening nurseries here, experts say.

``Nursery is known to be one of the highest-value acreages in New Jersey,'' said Soji Adelaja, head of research at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and Rutgers University's agricultural school. ``The productivity per acre is tremendous.''

In the mid-1990s, the most recent period for which data are available, greenhouses could generate about $35,000 per acre for bedding plants, while nurseries could make about $3,800 per acre for trees, shrubs, ornamental bushes and sod. By comparison, field crops such as barley, corn for livestock and alfalfa generated $115 to $480 per acre, and most fruits and vegetables earned $3,000 per acre or less.

Every new housing development and suburban office park needs trees, shrubs and flowering plants, and New Jersey's increasingly affluent residents spend freely on landscaping.

And the industry is changing to suit the tastes of suburbanites, according to Roger and Chris Ruske of Cumberland Nurseries, a father-and-son team who have been overhauling their wholesale operation. Their 275-acre spread grows bushes and ornamental shrubs such as yew, holly, forsythia and honeysuckle, and some specialty items such as pussy willows grown for their decorative branches.

The Ruskes, the third- and fourth-generation nurserymen in their family, have been changing how they grow plants, how big they grow them, who they sell to and, to some extent, what they grow.

They have cut back on their mainstay ``balled and burlapped'' business, meaning very large bushes and shrubs dug up with their roots and surrounding soil encased in burlap, in favor of shrubs and bushes grown in smaller containers that are easier to carry.

The Ruskes switched several years ago to growing smaller plants, including many in containers that can be moved inside greenhouses for the winter for both protection and faster growth. Most of their plants are sold after one or two years to other wholesalers for ``finishing,'' or growing them several more years to maturity.

The Ruskes also have been shifting to plants becoming more popular, such as privet hedges for privacy and flowering and aromatic ornamental shrubs.

The huge capital investments they have been making the last few years have sliced profits, but they expect bigger revenues down the road as their productivity keeps growing.

While nurseries offer farmers higher-per-acre revenues than traditional agricultural commodities, they require more skillful management, said Adelaja, the Rutgers agricultural expert.

Many flowering plants must be timed for particular holidays or the spring gardening boom, he said. Nursery operations also need savvy marketing _ mail-order catalogs, Web sites and close relationships with buyers _ unlike farms that grow vegetables or field crops sold at auction or to food processors. And nursery operators have to look sharp to anticipate consumer tastes.

``It's really agriculture at its most sophisticated level,'' Adelaja said.


On the Net:

National Agricultural Statistics Service site on New Jersey agriculture: http://www.nass.usda.gov/nj

New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station: http://www.njaes.rutgers.edu