(Feb. 28, 3:01 p.m.) The Garden State may lose an important part of keeping its garden growing if New Jersey’s governor has his way.

A budget proposal from Gov. Jon Corzine recommends eliminating the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Such a move could mean disaster for the state’s successful Jersey Fresh promotional program, growers said.

Cutting the agency could save little money and would minimize agricultural interests after being transferred to other state agencies said Tom Sheppard, president of Eastern Fresh Growers Inc., Cedarville, N.J.

“It would be a real loss in the industry to lose it all together,” he said.

Sheppard, who has written letters supporting the department to his south New Jersey state lawmakers, said other neighboring states as well as Massachusetts have modeled their agricultural promotion programs after New Jersey’s Jersey Fresh effort.

“Other states are trying to get this kind of promotion,” Sheppard said. “Eliminating the department would hurt us on many levels. They can trim the budget as they have done plenty of times in the past, but not lose it all together. We’re supposed to be the Garden State. What does that say?”

The New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton, has been blitzing state legislative leaders with facts and numbers regarding the governor’s formal proposal, which is in the early stages of budget negotiations, said president Richard Nieuwenhuis, a flowering plants greenhouse grower.

“We fully understand there is a major financial crisis in New Jersey, but feel the elimination of a total department is way too drastic,” Nieuwenhuis said. “We feel it’s a good sound bite to say you’re closing a whole department. It’s absolutely pocket change, and ridiculous to shut down a whole department of government.”

If cuts have to be made, agricultural interests recommend making them across all state agencies, he said.

If the agriculture department is discontinued, after transfer of its essential services such as food stamps distribution, the state would save only $300,000 to $400,000 a year, Nieuwenhuis said.

According to New Jersey newspaper reports, the governor’s plan would have state environmental protection and health and senior services agencies absorbing most of the agriculture department’s responsibilities.

Those reports indicate that $328 million of the agency’s $354 million yearly budget consists of federal funding.

The governor’s proposed budget also calls for ending the state’s departments of personnel and commerce.