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Farmyards, vineyards, byways, and waterways: Welcome to Salem County, N.J. | Kevin Riordan

I spent a sunny day in Salem County, NJ, where there's rarely a traffic jam. Unless a cow gets loose.

Amanda Coombs Shimp, who owns a family farm in Salem County, NJ, with a lamb named Gracie.
Amanda Coombs Shimp, who owns a family farm in Salem County, NJ, with a lamb named Gracie.Read moreKEVIN RIORDAN / Staff

As the bus left Upper Pittsgrove, I asked Mary Lou Chollis to explain the Salem County thing I kept hearing about.

I'd been listening to a host of expats — artists, vintners, and entrepreneurs from Philadelphia, Wilmington, and South Jersey — rhapsodize about the Garden State's least-populous county.

About 62,000 people and 7,500 cows inhabit Salem County's 382 square miles of small towns, big farms, and all-the-way-to-the-horizon vistas of fields, woods, and water. That's 40 square miles of water, not including the Delaware River and Bay, a.k.a. "the Other Shore," to which local boosters hope to lure more visitors.

"We're a green island," said Jim Grant, who owns the Inn at Salem Country Club, on the river in Elsinboro, and is an enthusiastic promoter of the state's Bayshore Heritage Scenic Byway  route through the county.

During a one-day promotional tour last week, relative newcomers I met were likewise jazzed about the county's lack of traffic jams — "unless a cow gets out," Gaynel Schneeman observed — as well as the abundance of art, the exuberant zig-zag of patterned brick houses, and the readily accessible sense of remoteness from the rest of the world.

"There's a different pace of life here. The stress just leaves you," said Schneeman, a Philly native who moved to Salem County from Gloucester County 11 years ago. She owns Barrett's Plantation House, a  bed and breakfast in Mannington.

"The landscape is inspirational," said the artist Molly Sanger Carpenter, who lives in Mannington and hails from Delaware. "And the light is wonderful."

But I was seeking a Salem County native's perspective, and Chollis, a retiree who grew up in the city of Salem and lives in Penns Grove, was more than qualified.

"My mother's family came here in the early 1600s," she said. "People know each other here. It's like two degrees of separation, instead of six."

Chollis was among the volunteers helping out at the "Discover the Road Less Traveled" event, which was sponsored by Visit South Jersey and Visit Salem County NJ.

The goal was to familiarize media folks with a county perhaps best known as the home of the second-largest nuclear-power generating station in the United States. Or for the colossal cowboy statue at Cowtown, the family-owned professional rodeo and farmers market operation on Route 40 in Pilesgrove.

Or the Appel Farm Arts & Music Center,  the venerable arts education institution in Elmer where a first-in-the-state Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) charter school is set to open in 2019.

Although the generating station's cooling tower can be seen in the hazy distance across much of western Salem County, the nuclear plant was not among our tour stops.

"Welcome to pristine, beautiful Salem County," Freeholder Lee R. Ware told about 20 local scribes as the tour began in downtown Salem, a charming, if sleepy, little city.

In an accent that was deep South Jersey — far more Delmarva than Philadelphia — Ware added: "We've got a lot of treasures and gems here that we get to enjoy every day."

Shortly after our bus left Salem, where the last impact of the long-ago loss of local manufacturing jobs is still evident  in extinct businesses and empty homes,  we arrived at the Hancock House. It's a wonderful example of the decorative colonial-era brickwork geometrics that are a regional signature.

The remarkably intact house on the Lower Alloways Creek also was the site of a Revolutionary War massacre by British and loyalist troops that claimed 10 lives, including those of four civilians. "Most of the attack took place here in the parlor," state historian Pete Michel told his visitors. "If you were in here, you had no chance."

This is the sort of historical drama outsiders (like me) may not associate with Salem County, despite its proximity to more famous goings-on in Philadelphia. But what anyone familiar with this part of South Jersey does associate with Salem County is agriculture.

More than 40 percent of the land is under cultivation — 825 farmers, commonly growing soy, wheat, and barley on 102,000 acres — one-third of them permanently protected from development. Which accounts for the striking expanses of farmland on either side of many local roads.

These days the fields are likely cultivated with the assistance of GPS. Sensors activate irrigation systems. And the Coombs Farm in Elmer has gotten into agro-tourism in a big way, offering an "Authentic Farm Experience" for kids and adults under the personable direction of owner and ninth-generation farmer Amanda Coombs Shimp.

"It's never the same day twice on a farm," said Coombs, a mother of three whose 500 acres are devoted to potatoes (customers include Herr's, the chip people) as well as corn, soybeans, and pumpkins.

"Most people," she said, "would never know all this is here."

The same applies to the Auburn Road Vineyards, where Scott and Julianne Donnini cultivate 23 acres of wine grapes — and saw their chardonnay take a gold medal of the 2016 American wine competition sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle. They started the operation in Pilesgrove in 2004 and have become an essential stop for wine tourists.

"It's happening here," said Scott, who moved to Salem County from Philly. "We are the pioneers."

As were Chollis' Quaker ancestors back in the 17th century.

And not surprisingly, she takes a long view of Salem County's tourist potential.

"People are not going to come here for a week and do this, that, and the other thing." she said. "But they will come for a day trip, family time, a weekend trip, a few days."

Chollis knows of what she speaks, having done a bit of traveling herself.

"There are nice places to visit, but I've never found anyplace that I would move to."

Salem County, she said, "is home."