Over the last several seasons, denizens of the Lawrenceville’s Sunday farmers market became familiar with David Zaback, the young, energetic, and cheerful face of Gravity Hill Farm in Titusville, where he was manager. Before signing on at Gravity Hill, Zaback had interned for three years with farmer Matt Conver at Lawrenceville’s Cherry Grove Organic Farm, which runs a well-subscribed CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. This season Zaback has started up his own farm, Z Food Farm in Lawrenceville, and both the farming and food communities he became part of have gathered round to help get his enterprise off the ground, so to speak.
“Farmer Matt,” as Conver is known, loaned his tractor to Zaback early this spring. Howard Myers, whose farm is nearby on Fackler Road, plowed the first of what will be Z Food Farm’s 20 acres. Folks from Hendrickson Farm on Cold Soil Road helped pound posts for the deer fence. “I’ve got a lot of drive and passion but limited resources,” says the 27-year-old Zaback, “so it’s great to have other farmers come to help me out. It makes me feel part of a community, and makes me think that someday I might be in a position to help the next generation of farmers.”
Gravity Hill has new managers this year, but owners David Earling and Maria Nicolo graciously pay tribute to Zaback’s contribution on their website, noting that during his tenure he “put a lot of loving care into our soil and now has moved on to start his own farm.” And the couple agreed to let Z Food Farm take over the table at Lawrenceville’s market that had been theirs. Starting around the end of June, Zaback expects to also be selling his organically grown produce on Sundays at Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square and on Wednesdays, noon to 7 p.m., at his own farmstand.
That stand, on Princeton Pike between Fackler and Lewisville Roads, is a familiar one to regular travelers of that road. For several years it functioned as Little Acres Farm Market Too. But the acreage behind it was no longer being worked. “Only a barn and a well were here,” Zaback says. He leases the land from the Hamill family, which has similar arrangements with Cherry Grove Organic Farm and Cherry Grove Farm, the latter where farmer Kelly Harding raises animals for meat and cheese.
Zaback also has his family behind him. Much of the current activity at Z Food Farm is reported in loving detail at www.farmer-david.blogspot.com, by David Zaback’s father, Alan, who has been chronicling his son’s activities online for the last three years.
He and his wife, Lynn, raised David and his elder brother, Pete, in Iowa City, IA, moving to the Lawrenceville area when David was in college at Iowa State University in Ames, where he majored in cultural anthropology. Alan Zaback had been a substance abuse counselor for 25 years at the University of Iowa, but the family relocated when Lynn got a job in the global division of ETS. “She works just down the road from the farm,” her son says, “so she stops by every day.” Alan Zaback taught in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school system for a couple of years, but now divides his time between helping out at the farm and baking cupcakes at Princeton’s Bent Spoon ice cream shop.
Which may explain why Gab is given credit for helping to get the farm’s website up and running. That’s Gab Carbone, who owns the Bent Spoon with her husband, Matt Errico, and who has put Zaback’s produce to good use in her creations over the years. “I was talking with Gab recently about the stress that comes with a start-up. But we agreed it’s inspiring stress, the best kind of entrepreneurial stress. It’s the most exciting time ever,” Zaback says.
He was one semester away from graduating from Iowa State when, he says, the pull of farming became irresistible. In 2003 while a junior, he got his first exposure to farming as an exchange student at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. “At the time, I was really more interested in food than farming, and was doing research on how the animal agricultural system was unsustainable. Then I discovered that the same was true for vegetables. This was all new information,” he says.
In 2004 he returned to Iowa State and cultural anthropology. “I enjoyed the theoretical discussions but it all seemed so intangible. Farming is super-tangible; nothing is more tangible than eating the food you’re growing.” He was headed back to New Jersey to visit his parents during spring break, and decided to check out an internship opportunity that Cherry Grove Organic was offering that summer. “I can’t speak for Farmer Matt but I felt an immediate connection,” Zaback says. “It wasn’t as if I had planned on not graduating but the immersion fulltime in the farm became compelling. After that summer I didn’t go back.”
Eventually, though, Zaback says he “needed a sense of completion.” So over the last year or so he took an online class at Thomas Edison State College and, even while starting up the farm, an evening class at Rutgers. “I just took my finals and got A’s in both,” he says proudly.
Zaback is in the process of submitting paperwork for the farm to become certified organic. Of the two 10-acre fields at his disposal, one has gone unused for the last three years, which is the minimum standard to be certified. Spring, 2008, was the last time the other field was used, so spring 2011 is when it will be eligible for certification. Among the cornucopia of produce Z Food Farm is growing in its inaugural year are: 15 varieties of lettuce; eight kinds of sweet peppers; five different beets; nine different summer squashes; and a whopping 54 varieties of tomatoes, 48 of which are heirloom. “It’s hard for me to get the number down even to that,” he admits. “Plus, specialty onions, spinach, arugula, beans, cut flowers, herbs, cauliflower, broccoli. Should I go on?”
Z Food Farm, 3501 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville, 609-610-4909. www.zfoodfarm.com.