From the front of Mike Brown’s house on Eastern Drive off Route 27 in South Brunswick — a typical suburban neighborhood with three and four-bedroom houses on larger lots — you would never know that Pitspone Farm is what’s in his backyard. There, farmer Brown, raised in the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick, toils away in spring, summer, and fall, growing a variety of berry bushes and a wider variety of specialty berries on his one-third acre lot, surrounded in front and back by a stockade fence. Repeat customers know they can usually find Brown tending to his rows of neatly planted berry bushes in back. Like many beginning small farmers, it took a period of years for Brown to turn his avocation into his vocation, or at least, a part-time vocation.
In a few years when Brown retires, with pension, from his job as a school librarian in Marlboro Township, he will devote his efforts full-time to raising and selling greater quantities of specialty berries — European and American elder berries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, goji berries, currants, and Saskatoon berries, among other types — which he mostly sells to Princeton-area restaurants and health food stores like the Whole Earth Center on Nassau Street.
Then he will have more time to also be an advocate for backyard farming.
“I’m exploring different models of how to be productive with your land,” Brown says sitting among neatly planted rows of berry bushes. Raised in a Jewish family, he wanted to become a citizen and explore Israel, so he lived there from 1979 to 1989. There he met his wife Nurit, who was born in India. She works for Johnson & Johnson in Raritan Township as a senior IT manager.
“When we lived in Israel everybody has some land there, they had fruit trees, berries, some vegetables; people were growing things they could use,” he says, “so Pitspone Farm is taking the backyard a step further. Not everybody is able to afford 10 acres of land here in New Jersey, but a lot of people have yards that are at least a quarter acre so you can produce a lot of food on that,” he says.
One can feed one’s family better with more healthy fruits and vegetables and sell off the extra, in Brown’s case, for a nice part-time income.
Brown says his property amounts to two-thirds of an acre — the name Pitspone comes from the Hebrew for “very small” — and with other houses in his neighborhood on similar lots, “there’s no reason you can’t make $10,000 or $15,000 a year. It’s a nice income, and one of my goals is to push the envelope on just what a suburban farm can do.”
Brown, the eldest son of two social worker parents — his father worked for Rutgers University’s School of Social Work and his mother was a caseworker — says his family has been in Kendall Park since 1962. He studied library science at Rutgers’ School of Communication, Information and Library Studies (now the School of Communication and Information), where he got his master’s degree. After graduation in 1979 and living in Israel for a decade, he worked a number library jobs back in New Jersey in the early 1990s before he became a school librarian, partly to have summers off so he could devote more attention to growing produce in his backyard.
“I always liked gardening, so I figured ‘why don’t I just combine my passion for gardening and use it during the summer time to make some money with it?’” he explained.
He began by selling figs to Whole Earth Center in 2007 and kept expanding from there. He was raising vegetables for a time and found by bringing something unusual to Princeton-area restaurant owners he could also sell them more conventional vegetables like peppers and tomatoes.
“My mother liked gardening. She did tomato plants and flowers, that kind of stuff,” Brown explained, recalling his youth when people would hitchhike to high school and walk home for lunch from grammar school walk home for lunch, at a time when most mothers were housewives and not out working.
When did Brown feel as if he had turned the corner with his specialty berries at Pitspone Farm?
“I was profitable from my first year, and I’ve always been profitable since then,” he says, “but I guess when I had sales in excess of $10,000, I considered it a legitimate business at that point.” Starting off with figs and vegetables he segued into specialty berries because he liked the idea of selling niche produce no one else was selling.
“Another area I’m going to start exploring is Indian vegetables because we have a few Indians living around here. My wife is Indian and we eat a lot of Indian vegetables; now, I have to learn how best to grow them and see if there’s a market for them. I don’t have the land to grow a lot of vegetables but I want to have the expertise to know how to grow them.”
Asked to further explain his business plan and marketing approach, Brown says you have to be selling something nobody else has.
“If I say I’ve got gooseberries and you can’t get them, then it’s a no-brainer,” Brown says. He noted that Goji berries, which he also grows, are particularly in demand right now for their antioxidant content.
“I don’t think anybody has any supplies of gooseberries. I asked Whole Foods about a year ago and they said they get theirs from Washington State. The only reason I’m not in any of those stores is because I’m not big enough; I don’t have enough to supply the demand. I sell gooseberries and currants to Whole Earth Center, and within a few days they’re gone,” he says.
One of the first restaurants he worked with in the Princeton area in 2007 was Tre Piani at Forrestal Village, and he also used to sell produce to Eno Terra in Kingston. Through the years, his approach has been constant research, asking questions at farmers’ markets and of restaurant owners, and good old-fashioned trial-and-error in growing his range of specialty berries, which includes American and European elderberries. Asked about the difference between the two, Brown says he discovered that the European elderberry flowers are prized by certain restaurants for use in mixed drinks.
“Not a lot of people were selling the elderberry flowers, and not a lot of people were growing gooseberries or currants or mulberries or aronia, so that’s how I got into that,” he says.
“Now I sell to Elements, Mistral, the Bent Spoon, Whole Earth Center, Brick Farm Tavern, and the Peacock Inn, and I’ve sold to various other places from time to time,” he says.
Pests and pest control are items Brown handles with caution. “I’m still waiting for my gold star from the Audubon Society, because birds are the biggest problem here,” he says, noting all different kinds of species enjoy picking at his various berry bushes.
“The only way I try to control them is with some diversion crops that these birds like to eat, as opposed to things I don’t want them to eat,” he says. For example, Brown planted mulberries, which satisfy the birds enough to keep them away from his more valuable berries.
“Birds, squirrels, and chipmunks are the three worst offenders, and groundhogs will tear apart mulberry trees,” he says.
“I don’t spray anything. I had an infestation of currant worm, but I had enough so that they didn’t destroy my crop,” he says. “I want to grow the plants fast and not let the worms get to them.”
“Nobody around here grows this stuff, so I’m kind of working in the dark and have to get the experience and expertise on my own,” he says, noting a lot of it is trial and error and a lot of it is research and reading.
Asked about the effect of global climate change on his sensitive berry bushes, Brown says he hasn’t noticed any trends, only that every growing season is different.
“I had some problems in the spring when it was very warm and all of a sudden we had two days of a freeze,” he says. “If they’re dormant, it’s not a problem, but once they start leafing out if it gets cold again, that’s a problem, especially the hascaps — they leaf out very early,” he says.
“Generally speaking everything here is very cold hardy,” he says. “Fig trees are not cold hardy, so I just have one very large fig that I have outside and I have other figs that I keep in the garage and bring them out as the weather warms up,” he says, estimating his backyard is about 40 percent nursery and 60 percent berries.
Many immigrants from Europe stop by his suburban farm to purchase actual elderberry and gooseberry bushes to plant in their own backyards.
“Yesterday I had people come from Staten Island, people come from Long Island and Pennsylvania to buy plants to grow their own berries,” he says. “It’s mostly immigrants, people from the old country.” Brown’s website, Pitsponefarm.com, is how many of his steady customers found him in the first place.
“Things that are not readily available, that’s my niche, so I’ve done a lot of reading and research and shopping around to get an idea of what’s good, what’s bad,” he says.
He admitted there is a farm in North Jersey that offers you-pick gooseberries, but that’s a different market and few farmers in central New Jersey offer both European and American elderberries.
“I’d say the majority of the people who buy their stuff from me have some European background and exposure to them, so they’re familiar with these bushes.”
Brown also notes there are alleged medicinal uses for many of the plants and berries he grows. Aronia is supposed to be very high in antioxidants, he notes, and so are elderberries. One can even make a tea out of the flowers from elderberries.
“I know goji berries are popular so I’m growing them to see if I can find a demand for them. People have been asking about Gojis for the last few years, so that’s why I’m growing them.”
What does Brown say to people who want to do this in their own backyards?
“A lot of people say this is very nice and I’d like to do this but no one ever takes that first step. Once in a while they do and I tell them if you have a full-time corporate job, there’s no way you can do this.” With his job as a school librarian, he gets home at 3:15 in the afternoon and he devotes an hour or so of his time most days before leaving for school.
Brown adds that the most frustrating thing for him right now is that he doesn’t have as much time as he would like to devote to his berry bushes.
“I don’t have enough time or space, and I’m constantly moving things around,” he says, “on the other hand the most satisfying aspect of this is when people come and buy plants and say they look great or they buy berries and say these taste great.”
Brown says his primary costs include plant stock, tools, and supplies, and depending on the season, water can become expensive. He also maintains a website, www.pitsponefarm.com, and has the associated costs of maintaining that.
Brown says he averages between 20 and 30 hours of labor per week in his backyard throughout the year, regardless of whether school is in session.
Why did Brown settle on berry production as his niche?
“Because you can get a good price for them and they’re interesting to me. There are so many different types and they’re nutritious,” he says. What’s more, he has two large freezers in his garage to store excess product, but most years he sells out of his specialty berries, noting all are harvested at different times during the growing season.
“I started out small. Every year I’ve expanded a bit. I’ve been profitable since the beginning and don’t have any overhead,” he explained, adding, as a sole proprietor, he has kept his small business lean and mean.
Brown keeps scrupulous records of what is planted when, gestation periods, problems with various types of pests, yields, and quantities successfully sold.
Down the road after retirement, Brown says he would like to expand his array of offerings and perhaps begin raising specialty Indian vegetables. Even with summers off from his school librarian post, any farmer will tell you raising fruits and vegetables requires constant attention.
“Once I retire I want to be able to jump easily into this,” he says. “This is not going to replace my salary from the school but I’m going to be getting a pension and this will allow me a respectable side salary.”
“I’m always learning new things and always reading about it,” he says, noting there’s a whole world of medicinal plants out there.
“One by one, I’m seeing which ones I can grow here that are suitable to this area. For instance, there’s one called sea berry. It’s very healthy, has a lot of uses, but it’s just not suitable, it’s thorny and can grow out of control. I know about it but I choose not to grow it.”
Of the future of Pitspone Farm, he says more time to devote to raising yields on his produce will equal better profits and an income to supplement his pension.
“I’d like to be able to expand. I just haven’t been able to find anybody who wants to go into a partnership and there’s also the little detail that I’m still working full-time,” he says.
Pitspone Farm, 39 Eastern Drive, Kendall Park. 732-297-0594. www.pitsponefarm.com.