Dig into someone deep enough and you’ll find a farm under the surface.
I came to that realization after a casual conversation with my wife, Liz.
As I frequently do, I was thinking aloud about the importance of farming and food distribution and said, “Since you’re from a farm family, you know all of this.”
I was referring to her early days on a farm in Dutch Neck (see the story by her sister).
“So are you,” she replied.
I didn’t understand and said I was a city-born kid who grew up in small town.
“In Ireland?” she replied, focusing me on the farm my grandfather and his parents had worked, where my mother had lived briefly when she was a girl, where Liz and I visited, and where my son and I stayed last summer.
I then began musing about the other farms that were part of our combined history and how farming roots run deeper in our nation than we realize on a daily level, even in me.
I also started to consider that that may be part of the enthusiasm for locally sourced and organic foods — a type of longing to connect with our pasts.
But no matter what I thought, there was a reality that the recent COVID-19 related problems had threatened our nation’s food production and distribution.
And that has turned longing into an awareness that our current farming practices — mainly a reliance on mega farming — have shallow roots.
But thanks to some reports and regional practices, it seems that people in the Garden State have been digging into themselves and coming up with some fruitful solutions for the future of farming.
Take, for example, the recent article that appeared in the online magazine The Conversation, “New Jersey’s Small, Networked Dairy Farms are a Model for a More Resilient Food System.”
Written by Princeton University’s Andrew Carlson, a postdoctoral research associate; Daniel Rubenstein, professor of zoology and director of the program in environmental studies; and Simon Levin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, the report was inspired by “the economic shutdowns that have severely disrupted supply chains that move food from farm to fork.”
At the start of their “compelling case study” focusing on dairy farms, the writers say, “Before the pandemic, the U.S. dairy industry was already struggling with low milk prices, rising debt, the U.S.-China trade war, widespread depression and stress among farmers, and limited rural access to mental health services. More farmers are calling it quits and, in uncommon but growing cases, committing suicide.
“As scientists specializing in ecology and the environment, we’re studying how milk — an essential yet suffering industry — has been affected by COVID-19. We have documented one solution to the milk distribution crisis: innovative small farmers of New Jersey, who are surviving these hard times by working in cooperatives and selling directly to customers.”
The report says “changes in the milk distribution networks that connect farmers, processors, retailers and consumers can be hard to see during a socially distanced trip to the grocery store. But they exist and are getting worse.
“Dairy producers are dumping thousands of gallons of milk every day. In Wisconsin, 50 percent of the state’s dairy products have nowhere to go while typical buyers such as schools and restaurants remain shut down and unable to purchase milk and cheese.”
And in nearby Pennsylvania, “where schools buy up to 40 percent of dairy sales by volume, the pandemic has beleaguered an already-stressed industry that lost 470 farms in 2019. Some large dairies have started donating milk directly to food banks rather than dumping it, but it has taken months for this to happen with the help of nonprofit intermediaries. Such arrangements are patches, not systemic fixes for gaps in a brittle supply chain.”
However, “Here in New Jersey, farms are the fourth-smallest in the United States, averaging 76 acres. The Garden State’s dairy sector is particularly small, comprising only 50 farms and ranking 44th of 50 states in total milk production. But despite their small operations, we see New Jersey’s local entrepreneurial farmers as models of a game-changing strategy.
“Rather than selling their milk to large dairy processing companies, these vertically structured local farms raise cows, process milk and other foods, and sell them directly to consumers at farm-operated markets and restaurants. Unsold items return to farms as feed or fertilizer.
“This system is highly efficient, even during the current pandemic, because farmers and their customers represent the entire supply chain. Customer demand for locally produced food is surging throughout New Jersey and the United States.”
The writers attribute the success to the farmers banding together in cooperatives and “sharing resources for the benefit of all. Farmers with dairies and slaughterhouses bottle milk and process animals from other local producers. Those that own markets, cafes, and restaurants act as hubs stocking and selling milk, meat, and produce from neighboring farms, generating profits for all parties.”
The takeaway, they say, is “New Jersey’s local farms are able to bounce back from disturbances like a pandemic because they add a collaborative, ‘horizontal’ element to vertically structured farms. As networks of farmers and consumers grow, they become more connected and are able to flexibly pivot and adapt to meet demand, thus creating increasingly resilient regional mosaics of farms and customers.
“We see Garden State farms’ current success as evidence that resilient food systems make agriculture smaller, not larger. As food networks rewire in the wake of COVID-19, we believe one priority should be fostering food systems that are flexible and diverse, like New Jersey’s farmer-consumer networks.”
The article suggests another productive New Jersey farmer-consumer arrangement, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), something that the national farm group LocalHarvest says is “reporting record increases in subscriptions.”
CSAs involve farms selling public shares — a subscription or membership — where shareholders receive seasonal produce for a specific amount of time.
The arrangement helps farmers to schedule and see a reliable income. Shareholders get fresh food, are exposed to different products, build relationships with farmers and farms, and become more aware of how seasons and weather affect produce.
Both the Conversation article and the LocalHarvest website had links to several regional examples that I visited in order to see for myself and make recommendations for readers who are interested in connecting with local farms.
The first stop is Cherry Grove Farm on Route 206 near Carter Road in Lawrenceville.
The 480-acre farm belongs to the Hamill brothers — Oliver, Bill, and Sam.
Although they inherited it in 1987, their ancestors have farmed nearby land in Lawrence and Princeton since before the Revolutionary War.
This particular parcel has been in the family since 1902 and was farmed for row crops. A traditional dairy was later introduced and leased to others.
According to a short history of the farm, after the Hamill brothers took ownership they realized that the land suffered from “intensive conventional farming techniques,” and decided to change course and use traditional interconnected and sustainable farming techniques.
They selected cheese as their focus and have become one of the only local cheese producers.
In a written statement, they say they make cheese small batches and age it on the farm. “Each piece reflects the distinct flavors, aromas, and seasonal variations of our unique terroir. Developed from classic European recipes, our cheeses are American originals.”
Their Havilah cheese recently received a 2020 Good Foods Award.
Additionally, as part of their sustainable “ecosystem,” the farm team also raises “a small number of heritage breed pigs, chickens and beef cattle, producing grass- and whey-fed meats, raised without hormones, antibiotics, or steroids.”
Both cheese and meat are available for purchase on the farm and at different locations.
To visit the farm’s grounds, dairy, livestock stables, picnic areas, and farm shop, look for the big cheese figure on Route 206 and follow the gravel drive for about a quarter of mile.
In addition to their home grown products, the air-conditioned shop also supports area producers of honey, wine, and other meat products, such as Griggstown Pies.
During my recent visits I tried a few of their cheeses and found their Buttercup brie one of the most pleasant I have ever had.
Their cheeses can also be purchased at Blue Moon Acres in Pennington, Brick Farm Market in Hopewell, and Nassau Street Seafood and Whole Earth Center in Princeton. Cherry Grove Organic Farm produce can be found at the Princeton Farmers Market.
The Hammils also rent a portion of their property to farmer Matt Conover, who runs the Cherry Grove Organic Farm and its CSA.
Cherry Grove Farm, 3200 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrence. 609-219-0053 or www.cherrygrovefarm.com.
Double Brook Farm is located on Hopewell-Rocky Hill Road in Hopewell.
Founded in 2004 to raise beef, chicken, and sheep for personal consumption, the farm now produces meat, poultry, eggs, and vegetables.
The farmers are Jon and Robin McConaughy. Jon grew up in Ringoes and had a career working in New York City’s financial industry. Robin is from Kingston and worked as a corporate headhunter before starting her own sports media business.
The two met initially while attending Princeton Day School but started a relationship when they met again while working in Philadelphia.
The couple say their “ultimate goal is a farm that uses energy from the sun or the earth, has zero outside inputs, no external animal feed, no external fertilizers, and a very limited carbon footprint.”
Double Brook’s point of public engagement is its restaurant Brick Farm Tavern, taking its name from a brick farmhouse, and two partnering businesses, Troon Brewery and Sourland Mountain Spirits. Another point is the Brick Farm Market, located about a half a mile away and where farm products are sold. You can also purchase lunch sandwiches and beverages (as I did). They also partner with Red Barn Milk Company to make ice cream and operate another restaurant at the dairy site in Ringoes.
For more information, visit the Brick Farm Group at www.brickfarmgroup.com.
The next stop is New Jersey’s oldest CSA, Honey Brook Organic Farm.
While I stopped at the shop at 260 Wargo Road, Pennington, Honey Brook also operates a farm in Chesterfield, Burlington County.
The enterprise was started in 1991 by the farm’s general manager, Jim Kinsel, a past tenant farmer who puts his degree in mathematics to work on solving problems related to growing food.
The farm manager is Sherry Dudas, who in addition to having a decade of working in conservation and farmland preservation is married to Kinsel and handles the farm’s website.
Honey Brook’s business model focuses on CSA and home deliveries to the greater Mercer/Bucks County region and including areas in Burlington, Camden, Essex, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Somerset counties.
In Honey Brook’s recent newsletter, Dudas freely discusses the farm’s situation during the pandemic and provides a peek into farming operations.
“Months ago, we thought we would be planning potlucks and a farm-to-table dinner to celebrate our 30th anniversary, but now we’re forced to put these plans on hold, as well as some others.”
Instead she says she and Kinsel found themselves trying to address the pandemic and “encouraged office staff to work from home, but when we needed to train new office staff, this was not practical, and there were stresses and anxieties we needed to work through with office staff working in our new office in Chesterfield. We needed to upgrade phone and internet services, find a new office cleaning service and move office furniture during the pandemic, just to name a few of the challenges bestowed on us. The increased customer service needs were overwhelming for new staff, contributing to two leaving without appropriate notice and increasing the workload of staff who steadfastly remained with us.”
She also notes, “As has been reported in several media outlets, the demand for CSA shares throughout the country exploded during the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak. Many CSA farms have now sold out of shares. Software platforms, which serve farms, were overwhelmed and (farms) found themselves short-staffed, and are now increasing hires, at a time when it is difficult to find workers willing or comfortable with working during the pandemic . . .”
“(But) most staff at the farm are working incredibly long hours, while wearing face masks in the heat of the summer. Until recently, Farmer Jim and I worked every day of the week since March. Staff who have opted to work through these unprecedented conditions in this historic year have far exceeded our expectations and are, frankly, the cream of the crop, the most essential of the essential workers working in America today.”
While the farm stand is mainly for CSA members to select available food or pick up their membership box, the farm sometimes has a product offered to the public.
During my recent visit, the CSA rep recommended the ears of organic corn ($1.50) with the pitch, “So sweet you don’t need to cook them.” The rep was right.
Honey Brook Organic Farm, 260 Wargo Road, Pennington, www.honeybrookorganicfarm.com.
While the above mentioned story and links focused on cooperatives and CSAs, I realized that they missed a regional farm that easily connected people and produce, farm producers, and the general community and families: Terhune Orchards on Cold Soil Road in Lawrenceville.
Originally owned by the Terhune Family, the 55-acre property — including a Depression-era farm store — was purchased in 1975 by Gary and Pam Mount, who operate the farm and shop with their family.
Gary had grown up on an apple farm in West Windsor. The couple met at Princeton High School and served together in the Peace Corps, where they worked on agriculture projects.
Initially focusing on apples, the open-all-year farm store sells fresh produce, dairy and meat products, jams, honey, maple syrup and pickled vegetables, pies and donuts, and their own line of New Jersey wines.
Using a model that Double Brook’s Jon McConaughy says he studied, Terhune either raises its own produce or sources it from a network of suppliers within a 50-mile radius.
Operations include a farm and wine shop and gift baskets that can be sent locally or nationally.
In response to the COVID-19 quarantine, the Mounts also recently launched a Farm-to-Door program that delivers to homes within a 10-mile radius for the cost of produce and a $10 delivery fee.
What also makes Terhune a center where people of all generations can connect to a farm is its general accessibility. Its store is open all year and there are festivals, special events, wine tastings, and weekend concerts.
And as a dad who has brought his son there for many years, I will attest it is a great place to take a winter ride to the farm shop to both get a child out of the house and connect them with something I have found within a lot of us — a farmer just below the skin.
Terhune Orchards, 330 Cold Soil Road, Princeton. www.terhuneorchards.com or 609-924-2310.