In 2013 Jim Nawn opened Agricola, the popular Witherspoon Street restaurant, in part to provide an outlet for the vegetables and eggs he produces on Great Road Farm, the 112-acre parcel of preserved farmland in Skillman that he and his wife, Ann, purchased in 2007.
Since then both the restaurant and the farm have thrived, and in recent weeks two major accomplishments were achieved: the publication of the Agricola Cookbook, co-written by Steven Tomlinson, the Great Road Farm’s farmer, and the farm’s earning the Certified Organic label. Nawn and Tomlinson have much more planned for the enterprise. Foremost on the to-do list is the erection of what they are terming a food barn on Great Road Farm, which they expect by next spring will be the locus for, among other things, cooking demonstrations, farm-to-table dinners, and collaborative events with other area farms.
Although Tomlinson has been employing organic practices at Great Road Farm since he signed on as its first farmer in late 2011, he and Nawn hadn’t sought official certification. “Steve has been very devoted to organic — not even using to the whole organic playbook because he felt not all of the practices contributed to his goals,” Nawn says. But after Tomlinson joined the board of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) 18 months ago, he reconsidered.
Says Tomlinson: “I’ve only ever worked on organic farms, which is why I’ve farmed organically here. I wanted to get certified not only because it validated what I’ve been doing over the last three years, but it became important that the public knows that we support the Certified Organic label.”
Tomlinson says that going through the process has made him a better farmer. “It made my recordkeeping even better. I had always kept a lot of records, but not compiled in the exact way certification requires. That now helps me plan better. Each year I work on something to get better at. I try to shoot for perfection and if I get to 50 percent, well, that might still be OK,” he says.
One of the tools in the organic toolbox that he could use but chooses not to is spraying even approved pesticides on any the 120 varieties of plants he grows on Great Road Farm’s eight cultivated acres. Nor does the farm use herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Tomlinson does, though, find himself adding minerals back into the soil to keep it healthy. “I’ve learned you can’t just get by with cover crop and compost all the time. You have to step it up because soil is like a bank: each year you’re withdrawing from it. For the organic label you have to take a soil test and have a deficiency before you can start applying minerals. That makes sense, right? Why would you put down fertilizer if the soil doesn’t need fertilizer, which is what people do and why you get all that runoff. This is farming responsibly.”
Tomlinson estimates that 70 percent of his output goes to Agricola, and the rest to other projects the farm has taken on since its inception. About 20 percent supplies the farm’s stand at the West Windsor Farmers Market each Saturday during the growing season, while 10 percent goes to members of Great Road’s own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. A small amount is sold, wholesale, to Brick Farm Market in Hopewell.
The farm’s raison d’etre is, of course, supplying the restaurant. Tomlinson has worked closely with Agricola’s chefs, including opening chef, Josh Thomsen, and his recent replacement, Crawford Koeniger. “There are a lot of changes going on at the restaurant but basically, the crop plan that I began with Josh is already rolling,” the farmer says. “So now what I’m trying to do with Crawford is more exciting things, because he has an open mind.” Like, taking flowers Tomlinson had grown only as cover crop and adding them to salad or turning a surplus of 1,400 heads of bok choy into kimchi.
“It’s important that the chefs are coming out to the farm and seeing what 1,400 heads of potential kimchi looks like,” he says. (The first time something similar occurred was a couple of years ago with Napa cabbage, which also became kimchi.) “The chefs are like, ‘You’re right — we do have to use this stuff.’ Once they see it, it’s no longer just an abstract number to them. You need that enthusiasm, trust, and communication between the farmer and the chef. I think that shines through on the plate,” he says.
Tomlinson says that by working with the chefs at Agricola — and eventually those who will staff the food barn — “we can really start to understand how much produce we want, when we want it, and what type we want. That’s probably the most important part of this farm, because our business model has us working pretty lean here in terms of staff.” In fact, Tomlinson has only three young people working alongside him. One has greenhouse duties, another helps with irrigation and soil readings, and a third with compost. All oversee the farm’s small numbers of livestock.
One of Tomlinson’s specialties is heirloom tomatoes. “That’s one of my favorite things to grow, and they sell really well,” he says. “Plus they don’t ship well, so it really is a specialty thing that we should be growing.” Among the new crops he’s experimenting with this season are artichokes (“It’s too early to tell”), and he just planted two 100-foot beds of herbs. “There are some things I’ve tried this year that have failed already, even a couple of times!” he admits, naming some experimental salad mixes. “I have to make sure I don’t experiment too much, or it turns into bad business.”
Another of his major crops is kale. “It doesn’t bother me that it’s considered trendy, because kale grows well here in New Jersey and it’s healthy for you,” he says. Early on, Agricola’s kale salad received a rave review in the New York Times and has become the restaurant’s most requested dish to date.
In the Agricola Cookbook it is termed, “The Famous Kale Salad.” “The organic certification and the book are two good things that happened just by virtue of what everybody is doing here and, in the case of the book, of outside people taking an interest,” Nawn says. The book, subtitled “Seasonal American Comfort Food with Style and Grace,” debuted in late May and by June was on Amazon’s best books of the month in its category. The book lists three authors: Josh Thomsen, Tomlinson, and Kate Winslow. (Winslow, a former Gourmet magazine editor, is not affiliated with the restaurant.)
Nawn was approached by Buz Teacher and Janet Bukovinsky Teacher, principals of New Hope-based Burgess Lea Press, with the idea of a cookbook. “Buz and Janet came and ate at the restaurant very early on after we opened,” Nawn says. “They were simultaneously starting a book publishing company that was going to devote itself to food books and charitable proceeds. That was a nice coincidence.” Proceeds from the publisher’s after-tax profits on the cookbook go to the Edible Schoolyard Project, Alice Water’s non-profit for underserved schools nationwide.
One of the factors that made Nawn agree to the investment of time and effort it takes to produce a cookbook was purely practical. “I think a cookbook, on a business level, is a good promotional item,” he says, while admitting that it was also gratifying to bring the book to his parents, who live in Holden, a small town in Massachusetts near Worcester.
“It was also a good opportunity to highlight what we’re doing at the farm and the restaurant, and who was doing it. When you look at the authors — and we include Kate because she’s a good writer, although she’s not part of this organization — Josh had a big personality. Steve has more of a modest need, but they each contributed in an informed way to what we’re trying to do. It’s a good expression of what guests experience at the restaurant, and it was nice that Buz and Janet recognized the importance of that.”
The team is not resting on its laurels. Plans are well underway for the opening of the food barn. In preparation, the farm has expanded its small number of livestock. Besides the egg-laying chickens it has housed from the start, the farm recently added six hogs to the three already in residence, plus eight lambs and two steer. “That’s all going to be meat for the smokehouse we’re building,” Tomlinson says.
The plan is to add whole-animal butchery to the function of the food barn. “We’re just trying out livestock to see if it works. It’s all new to me and it’s new to Jim,” Tomlinson says. “We’re seeing if, say, we like this number of animals then we can expand, or if we like a particular breed, maybe we can partner with another farm. We move in small, incremental steps.”
But they already have their so-called “meat man.” Until the smokehouse is completed, Dan Brunina can be found at Great Road Farm experimenting on a smoker. Brunina worked as a sous chef at Agricola for a year, discovered he didn’t like being in a kitchen all day, and started his own barbecue catering company, Lincoln Creek Smokehouse (in Glen Gardner), with his wife, Sarah Hecksteden Brunina. She had been a pastry chef at Agricola. Meantime, Dan Brunina is back at Agricola although, Tomlinson says, “he loves the farm. He comes by just to look at the pigs, and brings them bread from the restaurant. He’s passionate being outside, about animals, and about meat. Right now he’s in his research phase.”
The food barn, Tomlinson says, “comes from a need to preserve all the extra vegetables that we have here, and the desire to do our own whole-animal butchery.” The restaurant kitchen is simply not big enough. “It’s also got to be a place where we can put on demonstrations and have people doing cooking classes and events. We’ll probably do a prix fixe dinner on Friday and Saturday night, right here on the farm.
Says Nawn: “We like to think of ourselves as farm-centric. I think of two things when I say that. I really believe this [farm-to-table] business has more sizzle than steak sometimes. We all need to be transparent and authentic in what we do. It’s tough — Agricola is a large-volume restaurant [300 covers on a typical Saturday night]. It’s very tough to do in some circumstances, but it’s not so tough in other areas. We have a place here now where we can do some things that get even closer to the goal, which is that everything we’re serving comes from the farm. The food barn will become the centerpiece of what we do, what the farm and restaurant project has evolved into.”
The plan for the food barn arose in part from the destructive storms that in recent years had blown over and destroyed many white pine trees in a forested area on farm property just east of where the Nawn family resides. “Early last fall I was looking at the forest as an eyesore, full of weeds,” Nawn says.
But Tomlinson saw it with different eyes. Among Tomlinson’s many contacts is Jared Rosenbaum of Wild Ridge Plants in Pohatcong. “He came out and advised us to make this forest area regenerate as a kind of edible forest,” Nawn says. “The bottom line is, a lot of the things that are growing there that we’ve taken before as weeds — something we should get rid of because they’re unsightly — have both taste and nutritional value.” (In an interview with the Princeton Echo, Agricola’s new chef, Crawford Koeniger, says “It’s a cool project. I was joking with Steve, saying wouldn’t it be cool if in five years this could be like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where everywhere you walk you could grab something you could eat!”)
True to form, Nawn, who spent 11 years in the quick-casual food business when his Fenwick Hospitality Group built 37 Panera Bread franchises that exceeded the return of the company average, assigned Tomlinson to research projects similar to the edible forest, including farms that served food. Among them was Mad River Food Hub in Vermont, which influenced their thinking. “It’s not situated on a farm, but in what had been an industrial park,” Nawn relates.
“Basically, a person who has a lot of resources built it and has allowed artists, farmers, food people, and everyone in between to come and use it as a kind of incubator.”
That wasn’t exactly what Nawn had in mind, since Great Road Farm is incumbent, as part of the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program, to have as its mission promoting what is grown on the farm.
So last November Nawn and Tomlinson visited Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. “It was a four-hour drive there and four hours back, and we went down just for dinner,” Nawn says. “They had what they called a Feast in the Forest, where they had set up a table next to a stream that runs through the property.”
The chefs had foraged the property for some of the ingredients. “It was pretty cool,” Nawn says. Beverly Morton Billand, who bought the place 30 years ago, liked to garden and cook, and began mounting meals for friends. “This eventually evolved into a restaurant,” Nawn says. Current plans for Great Road Farm’s food barn include prix fixe farm-to-table dinners on Friday and Saturday nights, guest chefs, and possibly pig roasts.
The experience left Nawn “a little more comfortable” with the idea of having the public come to his farm on a regular basis. Over the last three years Great Road Farm and the chefs at Agricola have mounted an annual dinner under the aegis of Outstanding in the Field, a national organization that sets a long table on a farm and invites the public to an open-air feast in celebration of the farmer and the gifts of the land. Each Great Road Farm dinner has sold out well in advance. (This year’s dinner, on September 19, is already sold out.)
“I was worried that the dinners were going to be a big mess, but it’s easy and we really enjoy it,” Nawn says. “I realized we could introduce people to what we do, up close and personal. Maybe have some farming classes and cooking classes, have people pick produce and cook it. We feel that this project will add value to the food. Some of it will go to Agricola, some will be used here, some will be sold to other farms.”
The barn itself is being purchased from New Jersey Barn Company. It was built in 1853, situated in Clinton Township, and has been in storage for 15 years. It’s a bank barn, i.e. designed to be built into a slope or bank, with two levels that allow easy access to both levels.
“The floor is 1,500 square feet,” Nawn says. “It fits into the slope of our field here. It had a threshing floor and a main floor. Because of the slope here there will be a slight ramp up to the upper level and then on-grade access to the lower level. The lower level will be where the kitchen is and where we’ll be able to wash and process vegetables.”
Because the property’s 112-acres are preserved farmland, allowable uses of the site are determined by county and state agricultural boards and the National Resources Conservation Service. The Montgomery Township building department inspects construction to make sure it complies with local rules, such as maximum allowable height of the building and public safety and health issues. Nawn says that noise won’t be an issue because of the size of the property and the natural buffers between it and the nearest neighbors.
Nawn and Tomlinson hope the barn will at least be “in the ground” by August 1. They estimate it will take five or six months to fit it out with modern day amenities, while keeping its historical appearance intact. Nawn had hoped to celebrate his 50th birthday this September in the barn.
Says Tomlinson: “I would like to see this farm turn into kind of a flavor lab, where I’m trying different varieties and contacting other farmers and saying, ‘Look at this! I really like this type, or I bred this variety.’ Partnering with other farms to make a whole community of farmers, to have a place to sell their vegetables and their meat.” He uses as an example Blue Moon Acres, which has farms in Pennington and Buckingham, Pennsylvania. “They produce lettuce amazingly,” he says. “I hand cut my lettuce on a permanently raised bed. It takes four of us to harvest 30 pounds and it probably takes two hours, whereas they can do many, many more pounds per hour.” He and Nawn have talked about having guest chefs in for dinners where Tomlinson has grown an entire bed of ingredients just to that chef’s specifications.
“You want to promote other people taking on specialty stuff so that you have a large agricultural community,” Tomlinson says. “The exciting part of farming is being rooted in your community. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Adds Nawn: “As we grow our brand in size and muscle, we can do a lot more here, including bringing in other farms’ stuff. We’re trying to get more local product into Agricola and anything else we may do. We’re also experienced enough to know that’s not always possible, because something’s simply not available or it costs too much — we can’t price it right so we can’t handle it. Like anything, you have to balance it.”
Farmer Steve Tomlinson, 34, lives on the farm with his wife, Robin, and toddler son, Van. He grew up in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where his father is a senior vice president for a mortgage company and his mother spent her early years teaching before taking care of her three children. Thanks to childhood lessons in oil painting and piano, young Steve “grew up with a deep appreciation of artistic expression and when it was time to decide what I wanted to do after high school I decided to go to art school.” After earning a degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute in 2003, he founded his own company, the Design Can, which for four years specialized in furniture and wood product design.
At one point he worked for the artists Christo and Jean-Claude on what is arguably their most famous work: The Gates in Central Park. “Then I ended up working at an eco-friendly building supply company that my friend had started up,” Tomlinson says.
“When the economy crashed in 2008 I got laid off. I had about a month to think about what I wanted to do,” he says. He considered going back to school to study ecology, but decided he didn’t want to take on the debt burden. “So instead I traced the route of what people who study ecology go on to do. Some were going off to farm, so I decided to just short circuit that route and just learn how to farm.”
Tomlinson interned for eight months at Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. I was physically aching. If I had a back injury, well I would maybe take a day off. I loved it.”
After that he moved over to North Slope Farm in Lambertville, where he found a mentor in farmer Mike Rassweiler. “Both places have excellent farmers. Blooming Glen pumps out so much food it’s pretty intense, while North Slope is easier paced. Mike taught me to take care of my body and to have a deep respect and appreciation for the land. So I took the production side from one farm and the sensitivity from Mike.”
Tomlinson and Nawn connected through a classified ad Nawn had placed in late 2011 on the NOFA-NJ website for his soon-to-be farm. “Steve came out here that November and I asked him to give me an idea of what he was doing,” Nawn recalls. “He showed me some plans he had worked out that showed me he had some initiative.” These comprised a side project Tomlinson had implemented at North Slope: growing produce for Sprig & Vine, the innovative vegetarian restaurant in New Hope. “Mike had told him he could do that — but on his own time. Steve expressed to me his interest in growing more for restaurants, and he put a plan together that convinced me.”
Tomlinson finds Nawn a “very hands-on” boss — but only when it comes to the big picture. “He’s guiding the whole ship. He’s very calm and direct. He lets everyone’s opinions and ideas sink in, he mulls them over, and then he knows what direction to go in.” Nawn shows up on the farm at least once a week, Tomlinson estimates, or at least is in touch by phone or text. “It’s mostly big-vision stuff,” he says.
“Jim’s not micromanaging the farm. To me, that shows respect and means I’ll stay around. It leads to a productive, healthy team.”
Nawn has plans beyond even the food barn, including the possibility of other restaurants in Princeton. “No one’s making any money on this farm. This farm adds something to the brand that we’ve developed downtown and, thankfully, Agricola has been successful. But you know, it’s not easy. The exciting thing for me is that it has become a stage for some things we do. When we hung the tagline on Agricola — “community eatery” — I did so somewhat presumptuously. Maybe, though, it was a road map for where I would like to go versus where we were at the moment. You know, whenever you assemble any type of team, some players survive and some don’t. The team we have now I think is really starting to feel like, ‘OK, we’re starting to hit our stride.’”
Next up for the team is producing more videos like the two-and-a-half minute one recently posted on the Agricola website that introduces chef Crawford Koeniger. “Steve doesn’t know this yet, but the next one is probably going to be focused on him and the farm, trying to bring to life what’s really going on, because what’s going on here is really hard!” Nawn says.
Nawn also hopes to use the food barn as a hub for, say, working with local non-profits to provide meals and mentoring to underserved children. “The highest level of achievement for me is knowing that there’s a stage and there are players who can have these interactions. If I have an asset in the farm and I have one in the restaurant and the two of them just function independently like two kids playing in a sandbox but not interacting — parallel playing — then I’m not optimizing the opportunity. When you have somebody who appreciates and discovers this, and then they collaborate, that can be pretty powerful.”