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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,

sculptor,

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

Hopewell.

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

recoup

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

developing

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

ground

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

under cultivation.

Seward Johnson spoke about the farm in a recent

telephone

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

possibility

of having the NOFA’s offices at the farm. Although that idea did not

prove viable, Johnson says he gave NOFA financial assistance in

relocating

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

routinely

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.

"I

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,"

she recalls.

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

consider

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

all,"

she says proudly.

Spring Hill Farm is, in fact, a serious business enterprise. Seward

Johnson, while on the one hand rhapsodizing about old-fashioned

farming,

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

hoop-style

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

seedlings,

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

changed

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

old.

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

full-time

apprentices, Erica Phillips and Natalie Hamill. "We did hire a

couple of young men, but their female counterparts worked out

better,"

she says. "Then there’s also the benefit of not having to deal

with male-female dynamics." She finds that females are more

meticulous

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

points

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

profitability.

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

end.

"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

supply

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,

Estiva,

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

support."

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."

Spring Hill Farm Tour , NOFA-NJ, 135 Princeton

Avenue,

Hopewell, 609-737-6848. Free. Sunday, July 15, 2 p.m.


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