In the past 15 years, there has been an explosive interest in locally raised food. Farmers market vendors set up their white tents in most towns, offering everything from farm fresh organic greens to handcrafted raw milk cheeses and free-range chickens. CSAs (community supported agriculture), offering farm shares to customers who assume part of the risk, provide a bounty of produce that can either be picked in the field or delivered as a “boxed share” to a central drop-off location.

For those who want to dig their hands into the soil but don’t have the space or the sun, community gardens offer fertile plots in Princeton, Lawrenceville, West Windsor, Plainsboro, and other towns. Isles in Trenton has been turning abandoned lots into community gardens for more than 20 years.

Even kids are raising their own veggies. More and more elementary schools are turning part of the playground into school gardens, reminding kids that their food comes from the earth, not the big box store, and when they grow it, they eat it. Math, science, and writing curricula supplement the gardens.

Formal and informal groups are springing up to offer a communal experience in eating healthfully, as a way to get away from addictions or other maladies. And stores, such as Brick Farm Market in Hopewell, offer nothing but locally grown meats, cheeses, produce, and baked goods.

It’s not just an elitist suburban thing. Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick offers A Better World Cafe using farm fresh seasonal ingredients, Shiloh Community Garden where residents can grow their own food, and a CSA available to all income levels.

So with all this interest in healthy food grown close to home, why are obesity rates continuing to climb? Perhaps all that beautiful curly kale at the market, or the large red cabbage flowering in the field, is languishing in the fridge.

“People are beginning to understand that the grocery store model is no longer working,” says Connie Deetz, administrative coordinator of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ). “Our mission is to educate people on the benefits of eating healthier. We’re trying to make healthy food more accessible, but in many urban areas people don’t have access to fresh local foods. At NOFA-NJ we teach how to start backyard and community gardens.”

Healthy food connects to the health of the land and the soil. “Folks are beginning to understand the environmental costs of bringing food from overseas,” continues Deetz.

Just as the rains subside and fresh Jersey begins its bounty, NOFA-NJ is presenting a day-long Summer Food Symposium Friday, June 21, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Duke Farms Coach Barn, 80 Route 206 South, Hillsborough.

Four speakers will show how to make fresh, locally grown food a part of your daily life.

A healthful lunch is offered as part of the day’s package, and an optional walk through the trails at Duke Farms will remind visitors of the importance of exercise to a healthy lifestyle.

Joseph Heckman, professor of soil science at Rutgers University, will discuss ecological farming communities from centuries ago, and how the modern organic farming movement builds on the ideas of historic agricultural leaders. Andrea Fegan, a certified health coach, will talk about the benefits of eating raw foods. Chef and wellness educator Annmarie Cantrell will address how to alleviate modern-day ailments through preserving the nutrient density of foods in cooking. She will discuss soaking and sprouting grains, lacto-fermentation, and preparing nourishing bone broths. And, to make sure those strawberries and asparagus don’t dry up in the fridge, health counselor and nutrition educator Sharon Vecchiarelli will present the basics of canning and food preservation.

Duke Farms, with a mission to teach us to be good stewards of the earth, has partnered with NOFA-NJ on several projects, and in fact NOFA’s offices are now located in one of the farm houses on the Duke Farms grounds. “When I look out my window I see a field, a bird habitat, and the south branch of the Raritan River,” says Deetz.

As farmers markets and CSAs proliferate, there aren’t enough farmers to meet the demand. In 2011 NOFA-NJ received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to help emerging farmers get started, according to Justine Cook, organic farming and conservation technical specialist for NOFA-NJ. Farmers receive training in conservation issues and receive help applying for loans.

Duke Farms has provided 100 acres for the program, of which 11 acres are now actively farmed. “Start-up costs are the biggest barriers to new farms, so we have established an infrastructure,” says Cook. There are 60 acres of deer fencing and a well for irrigation. Barns can house farmer-owned tools and tractors. There is a shared walk-behind tiller, and Duke Farms provides the primary tillage.

“A smaller farmer won’t have to purchase a tractor and can hand-cultivate for weed management,” says Cook. Each plot is suitable for different types of production.

Farmers pay an annual program fee for access to the barn and the farm stand on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as office space. There is a per acreage rental rate, depending on whether the farmer wants irrigation and fencing.

To be eligible for the program, farmers must have two years experience working on a farm and understand cropping cycles. The three farms participating this year ­— all based at the NOFA facility — are Dogwood Farms, Hummingbird Farms, and Fertile Crescent Farms.

Dogwood is the largest of the three incubator farms, cultivating pigs, sheep, and diversified vegetables. Dogwood has already sold out its CSA. Fertile Crescent and Hummingbird grow diverse vegetables and will be adding chickens. All three farmers extend their season with hoop houses.

Part of the education incubator farmers receive is through mentoring relationships with established organic farmers. Mentors include Jim Kinsell of Honeybrook Farm in Hopewell and John Lima of Lima Family Farms in Hillsborough.

The incubator farms provide a safe environment for farmers to test their business plan, says Cook. There are about 50 incubator farms throughout the U.S., mostly in California and Vermont, but the incubator farm at Duke Farms is the first in New Jersey. Cook expects Fertile Crescent and Hummingbird to double in size next year, adding CSAs.

The Farm Barn Cafe at Duke Farms Orientation Center offers paninis, wraps, salads, frittatas, and sandwiches incorporating local produce when available, and Cook expects the production of the incubator farms to be significant enough to supply the cafe next year.

After the food symposium, NOFA will offer a tour of the incubator barn and host a Summer Solstice barn dance at Duke Farms. Participants should bring dancing shoes and a bring-your-own picnic supper. Callers will be on hand to help beginner contra dancers. The barn dance is free.

Admission to Duke Farms, which received a $45 million facelift last year, is always free. There are 18 miles of walking trails, 12 miles of bike trails, and a tram with stops at the Old Foundation, Orchid Range, and Great Meadow. Duke Farms offers four miles of paved paths that are wheelchair accessible and stroller-friendly.

Duke Farms serves as a habitat for native plants and animals, including grassland birds such as the bobolink, Savannah sparrow, and Eastern meadowlark. Snapping turtles and flying squirrels have returned, and native witch hazel and sassafras have been reintroduced. Visitors can cool off in the orientation center, an adaptive reuse of the 22,000-square-foot farm barn, and learn about the history.

The property — three times the size of New York’s Central Park — was created by James Buchanan Duke and preserved by his daughter, Doris Duke. It has gone through several identities in recent years, from the Gardens of the Nations, housed under an acre of glass — 11 separate garden rooms, each housing the flowers of different nations. (The conservatory now grows native plants for research.) In 2003 Duke Farms opened the park-like grounds, with 700 acres of waterfalls, lakes, statues, winding roads, wildlife habitats, and farmland, for public tours. Then in 2005, for a two-year period only, the country manor house was open for tours while a strategic plan was underway to better use the property.

Today the Hillsborough property, rimmed by the Raritan River and containing 11 man-made lakes and rolling hills, is a magnificent and rambling park, albeit with stately buildings that appear to have lived through better times.

Northeast Organic Farming Association — NJ Summer Food Symposium, Coach Barn, Duke Farms, 80 Route 206 South, Hillsborough. Friday, June 21, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Registration at 8:15 a.m. Incubator Farm Tour, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Bring Your Own Picnic Dinner (Carry-In, Carry-Out), 5:30 to 6:30, and Barn Dance, 6:30 to 8:30, $70 (NOFA-NJ members) and $80 (non-members). Call 908-371-1111 or visit www.nofanj.org.

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