During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, land reclamation held a prominent role in the development of agriculture along the Atlantic seaboard. In many nineteenth-century agricultural journals and reports, agriculturalists and geologists promoted land reclamation over the promises of unlimited arable land attainable through westward expansion. Moreover, it offered a solution to growing cities that were bordered by mosquito-infested marshes. Citing the marshlands along the Hackensack River between Jersey City and Newark, the state geologist wrote:
Nesbit, in his 1885 USDA report, mentioned that the day was rapidly approaching when cheap land would no longer be available and land reclamation would be an enticing option to high-priced land. At the time, however, he acknowledged that many farmers balked for fear of failure and lack of money. Despite the fact reclamation succeeded from New England to the mid-Atlantic and southern states, few projects realized their full potential; many growers in southern states lost dikes as casualties of the Civil War, while in parts of New England they were deemed a deterrent to navigation. Nesbit saw the most successful projects in Delaware and New Jersey. Delaware had more diked land in proportion to its area, while New Jersey boasted the most fertile reclaimed land in the nation.
By the middle of the twentieth century, much of the reclaimed land in New Jersey, as well as in other states, had reverted back to its natural condition. Land had not "run out," as predicted by Nesbit. Moreover, the need for extra land to graze livestock or to grow fodder disappeared as automobiles and motorized farm equipment replaced horses and oxen.
Changes within South Jersey also led to a decrease in the amount of reclaimed land. Glass manufacturers that had once used salt hay as a packing material found new options. At the same time, the number of area glass factories decreased due to their inability to compete with modern, automated plants elsewhere. The invention of refrigerationin the home as well as for rail and truck transportationled to the demise of icehouses, and inadvertently to a drop-off in the demand for the salt hay that had served as insulation. Today, surviving salt-hay farmers depend on construction companies and nurseries as their primary buyers.
Employment shifts in American society and industry led to a decline not only in the amount of reclaimed land in the South Jersey area but also in the number of farms. For many, factory jobs offered better benefits and more free time than farming. Improved farming technology throughout the United States and the availability of government loans to obtain it meant that one man could produce more on his farm than several might have done a century before. Farming followed the steps of big business in many ways, leading to fewer farms and a disintegration of the community-oriented society.
The community that developed among the farmers who participated in meadow companies or who worked less formally together to protect their land, began to erode with the Depression and continued to disintegrate during World War II. Money was unavailable to sustain the dikes, and many children left the farm for urban areas in search of work. More children, and former farmers themselves worked in defense factories during the war years. Frank Burcham, for instance, closed his brick factory because it was considered non-essential to the war effort; he went to work at Dorchester Industries making mine sweepers.
The disappearance of a community feeling was escalated by these events, but the lack of cooperation among participants was the prime reason reclamation projects in many states failed, according to the reports of George Cook, New Jersey state geologist, and D. M. Nesbit, USDA agent. Land reclamation for agricultural purchases was truly a community activity.
Today, salt-hay farmers join together when their livelihood is threatened by outside forces. When the New Jersey State legislature enacted the Wetlands Act of 1970, they collectively urged legislators to include a clause allowing them to maintain their dikes and preserve their businesses. Locally, members of the Greenwich Meadow Company worked with the township, county, and state to find ways of repairing their banks. The Burchams, however, no longer have a community in which to work. Every day is a struggle for them to maintain their triangular peninsula. The struggle against nature is intense enough, but the battle against administrators and environmental regulations is even more difficult.
Perhaps through education, a new "community" could be formed; a "community" in which people work with the Burchams and the salt-hay farmers to save a piece of America's heritage. If the ideas behind the reclamation of the Burcham Farm and the salt-hay meadows are not given their proper historical value, they will disappear along with a way of life that is several centuries old.
Currently, South Jersey appears to be a frontrunner in such projects because it still has extant examples along the Delaware Bay, as well as the Cohansey and Maurice rivers. These reclamation projects represent not only a piece of South Jersey's heritage but of the United States' as well. Many eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century farmers depended upon reclaimed land for grazing cattle, cutting salt hay, and growing corn, tomatoes, wheat, potatoes and other upland crops.