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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the July 11, 2001 edition of U.S. 1
Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Summertime at Spring
by Pat Tanner
J. Seward Johnson Jr., the pharmaceutical heir,
and founder of the Johnson Atelier for Sculpture, is best known in
Mercer County for his 22-acre outdoor sculpture park, Grounds for
Sculpture, established in 1992. Eight years later Johnson surprised
not a few art lovers by launching Rat’s, an exclusive restaurant in
landscaped surroundings adjacent to the sculpture park. At about the
same time, the tireless Johnson purchased Spring Hill Farm in
The 30-acre property, which had been known as the old Quinn Farm,
had lain fallow for 20 years. Almost simultaneously with the opening
of the restaurant, Johnson decided to use part of his farm for growing
organic fruit, vegetables, and flowers to supply Rat’s vaunted menu.
And in the spring of 1999 Pam Flory became Spring Hill Farm’s manager.
By the end of the first growing season Flory and a small, all-female
crew had cultivated two-and-a-half acres on a very tight budget. They
had managed not only to meet the restaurant’s needs, but also to
the capital that had been invested in making the farm productive.
Spring Hill Farm will be open to the public for a tour this Sunday,
July 14, sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of
New Jersey (NOFA-NJ).
The idea of creating a restaurant farm originated with Rat’s executive
chef, Eric Martin. "Mr. Johnson and I were talking one day about
how he wanted to keep the old farm feeling, which would be lost if
the property were developed. I was only half serious when I suggested
we start a restaurant farm," Martin says.
The chef has ultimate responsibility for the profitability of both
the restaurant kitchen and the farm. "That first year we ran a
cut-back budget because we weren’t sure the Johnsons wouldn’t be
the land," he explains. "It was a test year and, even so,
everything paid for itself except for the salaries of Pam and her
full-time helper. That’s not bad, since we were working with raw
and started with no equipment. Mr. Johnson was so impressed with the
first year, we opened up the budget this year. We’re taking steps
to make the farm more permanent, and will be doubling our income in
the farm markets this year." Three and a half acres are currently
Seward Johnson spoke about the farm in a recent
conversation from his office on Nantucket. The idea of an organic
farm appealed to him and his wife, Joyce, he says, for a variety of
reasons. "Joyce and I just love the place. We wanted a farm, not
an estate. It is exactly what we were looking for. We were amazed
to find it right here. We had been looking in places like upstate
New York. You might say we are two happy campers."
"We wanted to have farming activity at the place, but rather than
simply having a farmer grow corn as a way to avoid taxes, we wanted
to make the land productive for people, to realize the fruits of the
earth," he says. "To me, the Hopewell area is beautiful, old
America, not suburbia. I love to see true farming in the area and
I hate the development that is happening."
"These days when things are quite a free-for-all in chemistry,
it’s hard to be sure what you’re eating. We want to guarantee purity
to the customers of Rat’s."
As the project got under way, Johnson contacted NOFA-NJ, and executive
director Karen Anderson, and at one point even discussed the
of having the NOFA’s offices at the farm. Although that idea did not
prove viable, Johnson says he gave NOFA financial assistance in
its headquarters, "because what they do is so important."
It was through Karen Anderson of NOFA-NJ that Johnson and Martin found
Flory. Asked if he had any reservations about hiring a woman as farm
manager, Martin responds, "I was leery at first. I know how much
work is involved in farming. I also knew we needed someone who was
totally committed. I’m pretty good at sizing people up and I could
tell right away about Pam. Plus, she was experienced and that was
reassuring. In retrospect, she’s done a great job."
It’s easy to see why Martin could have had reservations. Pam Flory
does not look like your typical farmer. The trim, blond Flory looks
much younger than her age, which is 35, and has a ready smile and
warm, bubbly personality. When she spoke before a group of would-be
small farmers at NOFA-NJ’s winter conference last January, she passed
around chocolate chip cookies she had baked that morning. She
offers visitors to Spring Hill Farm some of the farm’s bounty —
even to the UPS delivery person.
Flory grew up in Southboro, Massachusetts, where her father worked
in the textile business and her mother as a registered nurse. After
earning a degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts,
Flory chose to spend two years in the Peace Corps as an agricultural
economist in the kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. Her other
agricultural experience includes teaching biodynamic gardening at
the Waldorf School of Princeton and working at North Slope Farm in
Lambertville, where she eventually opened her own business growing
organic flowers, called Pam’s Garden.
Flory says she had dreamed of living on a farm since childhood, but
it was growing flowers that initially got her hooked on farming.
can still remember my grandmother’s beautiful flower garden,"
she says. "The hollyhocks towered over my head."
Flory also retains a vivid memory of helping her father plant a tomato
garden in the backyard each year. "He would hand dig his little
plot and teach me the same specific thing each year: dig the hole,
put in the plant, fill the hole with water — this was the most
important step to him — and then cover the hole with soil,"
Fittingly, her love of flowers has proved a wise business investment
for Spring Hill Farm. Any sweet peas, sunflowers, larkspur, Irish
bells, yarrow, and other flowers that don’t go into arrangements for
Rat’s are sold at weekly farmers markets in Summit and Hopewell.
"Flowers are huge sellers," Flory says. "Last Sunday at
the Summit market we sold 60 bunches at $7 each. That was almost half
of what we made at the market that day, and we could have sold twice
as much." Flowers make particular sense, she adds, when you
that they take relatively little labor. "It took us three hours
to harvest them and one and a half hours to bunch them, that’s
she says proudly.
Spring Hill Farm is, in fact, a serious business enterprise. Seward
Johnson, while on the one hand rhapsodizing about old-fashioned
also notes, "So far the farm has not been a paying proposition,
but they say it will be in five years."
It was by no means luck or accident that Flory was able
to accomplish the remarkable feat of creating an efficient, large
yield on a small piece of land in the very first growing season. She
humbly credits outside factors for a large part of her success, citing
the support of her employer and the local farming community, as well
as good land. In fact, the enterprise broke even so quickly due to
Flory’s expertise, foresight, and management skills.
Among the steps she took to keep costs in line that first season were
to borrow or rent most equipment. "This was a huge savings,"
she says. "Plus, you get to know what works for you." She
contracted out some chores, including mowing much of the land. "We
also scavenged, recycled, and went to garage sales," she admits.
Examples of her finds include a seed roller that her husband, Rob,
picked up for $5 and a photo developing sink, also $5, which she uses
for washing produce. Greens are spun dry in a beat up clothes washer
that has had its agitator removed. She and her crew cut down cedar
trees from a grove on the property to make posts for the electric
fence they designed and built to keep out deer. The fence surrounds
well over two acres and cost less than $1,000.
Flory easily rattles figures off the top of her head. She knows, for
example, that the six raised-bed boxes she made from cedar planks
cost a total of $284, and the frame for the 14-foot-by-32-foot
greenhouse house she built the first year cost $560. (The benches
inside cost nothing: she and her crew built them from scrap lumber.)
She decided this kind of inexpensive greenhouse structure was a sound
investment after having borrowed space in a friend’s greenhouse to
plant the first seeds for the farm. That greenhouse is in Upper Black
Eddy, Pennsylvania — a 90-minute round trip to retrieve the
which took three trips in all.
Flory also implemented what she at first called "the 10-minute
rule." "If it takes you longer than that to fix it or figure
it out, move on to the next chore," she explains. She later
the rule to five minutes, implementing it, for example, when it took
longer than that to unwind a section of used drip irrigation tape.
She found it more efficient to get a new piece than wrangle with the
Flory knew when it was necessary to spend money, like paying more
for prime mushroom compost from Hog Valley Farm in Pennsylvania. She
borrowed a John Deere tractor from a local farmer, and rented another
that had an option to buy (which she later did). She bought a used
cultivating tractor ($2,000) and a used box truck for carting produce
to the farmers markets. "The only piece of equipment we purchased
new that first season was a rototiller," she says proudly.
Pam Flory didn’t set out to have an all-female farm crew, but it has
worked out that way. Besides herself, she has one full-time worker,
Amy Longo, who has assisted her from the start. The 26-year-old Longo
grew up in Maplewood. This year, Flory also took on two young
apprentices, Erica Phillips and Natalie Hamill. "We did hire a
couple of young men, but their female counterparts worked out
she says. "Then there’s also the benefit of not having to deal
with male-female dynamics." She finds that females are more
and, contrary to conventional wisdom, manifest more stamina. "Of
course, it varies on a person to person basis," she allows.
Pam and her crew estimate they work between 50 and 60 hours, six days
a week. They try to take Mondays off and to leave the farm by 6 p.m.,
although harvest days and market days are usually longer.
Flory and Eric Martin collaborate on what crops, and which varieties,
are planted. "I am an employee of the restaurant," Flory
out. "The restaurant reflects the seasonality of the farm. If
Eric puts something on the menu, he has to be assured of a continuous
supply." Succession planting, she believes, is key to
She points to a bed of just finished crops of radishes, pea shoots,
and peas. Those beds would be re-tilled and replanted before week’s
"In January and February," Martin says, "Pam and I go
through seed catalogs. I pick out some weird things, like stinging
nettles, wood strawberries, and ramps." Those ramps, a kind of
wild onion, showed up on his spring menu, sauteed and paired with
beef tenderloin and chive mashed potatoes. In the first season, Flory
learned what the restaurant would use and what it wouldn’t. "We
planted a whole bed of dandelions, but the restaurant didn’t use a
lot of the greens," she says. Among the many baby greens she
to Rat’s are mache, miner’s lettuce, tatsoi, arugula, spinach, and
mibuna, a smooth-leaf mizuna.
This year, Flory is growing 11 varieties of tomatoes for the Rat’s
kitchen, among them Green Zebra, Striped German, Early Cascade,
and a cherry tomato called Sungold. When his kitchen becomes inundated
with tomatoes, Martin says he adds dishes like gazpacho, ratatouille,
and tomato confit to his menu.
The farm’s perennial beds hold asparagus, rhubarb, red and golden
raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, herbs, and peonies. One reason
Flory is cultivating a new piece of land this year — what she
calls the North Field — is to supply the restaurant with corn,
which is land intensive. Also new to the farm are a hive of bees and
30 chickens, whose eggs will become part of Sunday brunch at Rat’s.
Flory currently dedicates an entire field to potatoes, a particular
joy to Eric Martin. "Nothing beats new potatoes just out of the
ground," he states. Chefs willingly pay more for farm produce
and organic products because, he says, "they are perceived as
special, good for you, and are often hard to find, like ramps. The
ripeness and quality are unbeatable. Boxed carrots from a supplier
can be a month out of the ground, but at farmer’s markets you get
carrots pulled within two days, with their nice, fresh greens still
attached. Also, you’re offering people something they can
This spring, chef Will Mooney of the new Brothers Moon Restaurant
in Hopewell bought all his lettuce from Spring Hill Farm, as well
as snap peas, sorrel, edible flowers, and arugula. When his restaurant
recently received a favorable review from the New York Times, Flory
sent over a big bouquet of flowers. Flory said she was particularly
tickled because the reviewer wrote that her favorite dish was shrimp
over basmati rice and organic Swiss chard with a beet pesto. The chard
and beets came, of course, from the farm.
"I feel like I hit the farmer jackpot," says Flory. "Not
many people get rich doing this kind of farming, but it’s what I love
to do. Working here is a lifestyle choice. I wake up every morning
and say to myself, what’s on the list today. There has never been
a day when I haven’t wanted to come to work."
Hopewell, 609-737-6848. Free.
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