Few jobs are romanticized as much as that of the farmer, and it’s easy to see why. To the thousands of people who commute to work every day along the Route 1 corridor, who spend their days alternately hunched over a steering wheel or a computer monitor, the life of a farmer seems, well, bucolic. A farmer gets fresh air all day, lives off the land, and perhaps most appealing of all, produces a tangible product that everyone needs. Farming is often presented as honest work with an honest reward.
And many people do leave the rat race to lead this supposedly simple life. In fact, some of Central Jersey’s most prominent agricultural entrepreneurs are folks who traded business suits for overalls, leaving well-paying corporate jobs to till the soil. Becoming a farmer is one of the more attainable pipe dreams.
But what some people don’t realize about farming is that beneath its “slow life” image, the actual job is much more complicated than it appears. Adrian Hyde, a Harvard Business School graduate and a former angel investor and investment banker who left the finance world to own and operate an organic vegetable farm in Hopewell, says farming has a life-long learning curve.
The farmer must master an intimidating list of skills: farm equipment maintenance and repair, entomology, horticulture, soil biology, conservation, and more. And that’s just to grow the crops. Don’t forget that a farm is also a business, so you will need to know bookkeeping, accounting, marketing, and how to manage workers. Hyde has his own business cards. They read: Adrian Hyde, farmer.
“Finance was way easier,” Hyde says. “It was way less complicated and it pays better money.”
For all that though, some of the image of the farmer’s life turned out to be true for Hyde: he found it to be just as healthful and satisfying as it appeared from the outside. “Working with nature and being able to work outdoors is wonderful,” he says. “And I can eat what I produce.” In addition to running Dunwald Farm, Hyde is executive director of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New Jersey.
To help others achieve the ambition of becoming a farmer, NOFA-NJ is hosting a course on four consecutive Wednesdays on “Exploring the Small Farm Dream” beginning Wednesday, March 14, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the D&R Greenway Land Trust at 1 Preservation Place in Princeton. Tuition is $350, $300 for NOFA-NJ members. Scholarships are available. For more information on the course, visit www.nofanj.org.
The course will be led by Jess Niederer, who owns and operates Chickadee Creek Farm in Hopewell and won the National Outstanding Young Farmer Award in 2016. A graduate of Cornell, Niederer briefly set of on another career path in ornithology and disaster relief before founding her own farm in 2010. Her small-scale organic vegetable farm sells its produce mainly through local farmers markets (U.S. 1, February 6, 2013).
While large commercial farms tend to sell their goods far and wide, many small farms cater to the local market. Farmers markets represent one of many ways that Central Jersey farmers sell their goods close to the source. Hyde focuses on restaurants. His prize crop, garlic, supplies Nomad Pizza, an upscale pizzeria in downtown Hopewell and the Princeton Shopping Center. “I just put it in my car and drive it down,” he says. He also praises Whole Earth Center, a health food grocery store on Nassau Street, for buying the products of local organic farms.
Unlike Niederer, who is a 13th-generation farmer, Hyde came from a family far removed from agriculture. He grew up in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where his father was a senior economist for the World Bank and his mother was an interior designer who taught courses at a local college. He enjoyed gardening as a kid and became a “foodie” thanks to his father bringing home recipes and ingredients from his globetrotting travels.
Hyde went to the University of Virginia, taking an eclectic major in interdisciplinary studies that allowed him to study a broad range of fields, concentrating in the more traditional subject of economics. “After college I wasn’t 100 percent sure what I wanted to do, and that’s always been true for me,” he says. “I’m never sure where life is going to take me next.”
After graduation, Hyde went into finance and later earned an MBA at Harvard Business School. His job as an investment banker took him to London, Hong Kong, and other places in Asia. “I went into proprietary trading, which doesn’t exist as much anymore,” he says. In this field he was given money to invest by institutions, and he would travel the world looking for businesses to invest in. “As the years went on I started seeing the value in getting new technologies and new ideas launched, so I became much more interested in startup investing.”
In the next phase of his career, Hyde was an angel investor, funding companies in medical devices, cancer testing, homeland defense, and other fields. “I wasn’t a co-founder of Google or anything,” he says. “But most of these companies are still around.”
One company he funded that did not survive was a group of young people who were renting farmland to cultivate. “They came to me with probably one of the worst business plans I’ve ever seen,” he recalls. “It was just terrible.” He says he was dubious about the business making a profit but decided to do it against his better judgment.
It turned out their plan really was lousy: successful farming requires long-term investment in the land, and the landowners grew annoyed by the comings and goings of their itinerant tenants and their farm equipment.
Hyde still wanted to support the group, though, so he bought land for them to farm permanently. However, one by one the group got married, got other jobs, and left the farm, leaving Hyde holding the bag on the property that is now Dunwald Farm.
Rather than selling off the farm, however, he decided to take over and in 2012 he left finance to concentrate on farming.
“In the finance world, I missed working and being outside. I missed nature and being a part of it. So I jumped in with both feet and started doing all the work myself after the last of the young ones moved on. I’ve never looked back, and it’s been a tremendously challenging but gratifying experience.”
Soon after becoming a farmer, Hyde joined NOFA as a board member. Two-and-a-half years ago, he became its executive director.
At 15 acres, Dunwald Farm is a small-scale operation, selling mostly to local restaurants. If Hyde worked on the farm full time instead of his job at NOFA, it would turn a profit, he says. Hyde grows around 50 different crops on this plot of land.
As a certified organic farm, Dunwald Farm avoids synthetic pesticides. Most organic farms use “natural” pesticides. (Studies show that natural pesticides are often just as toxic as synthetic ones to farm workers who are exposed to large amounts of the chemicals, though neither organic nor synthetic pesticides have been proven to be harmful to humans at the extremely small doses found on produce.) Scientists agree, however, that the use of pesticides poses health risks to farm workers who handle them and can cause environmental damage by contaminating soil and water and killing organisms other than the targeted pests. Those hazards apply to organic as well as synthetic pesticides.
Hyde avoids using even natural pesticides, saying that good management of the soil has kept the devouring bugs and weeds at bay.
“You take care of your soil first, and you don’t have bugs and plant diseases and other problems,” he says.
For the first few years of operation, combating insects at Dunwald Farm meant doing it the hard way, literally killing bugs one at a time by hand.
“I couldn’t believe we had so many asparagus beetles and potato beetles and all kinds of stuff going on,” he says. “We were out there squishing them with our fingers or flicking them into a jar of soapy water. We would consume hours doing this.” One time a cabbage worm infestation in the broccoli got so bad, he caved in and used an organic insecticide on them, at the recommendation of an employee. It worked, but he says he regrets the “collateral damage” it caused.
Farming in general has a large impact on the environment. In addition to the sheer land taken up, fertilizer runoff, pesticides, acidification, and emission of greenhouse gasses are all concerns that environmentally conscious farmers like Hyde are seeking to mitigate.
Hyde and his wife, Lauren Bender, have been longtime environmental activists, taking up causes such as fighting fracking. “We kept asking ourselves over and over again if we have a finite amount of time and energy, where we can place that and where it would have the greatest positive effect on the environment,” he says. “We kept turning up agriculture. If you get agriculture right, a lot of other problems get solved with it.”
Of course there are as many ways to run a farm as there are farmers, and not everyone agrees that organic farming causes less damage to the environment than conventional methods. A widely cited 2012 meta-analysis, conducted by Stanford, showed mixed results: organic farming had positive environmental impacts per unit of land area, but not per unit of food produced, due to organic farms yielding less food per acre than their conventional counterparts. The study recommended that farmers draw on techniques from both conventional and organic systems to grow the most food with the least environmental impact.
A different Stanford study showed there was no nutritional difference between organic and conventionally grown vegetables.
Hyde takes issue with both studies. “There still hasn’t been a tremendous amount of research in this area, and I think that people will take what was written in the report and extrapolate it into a generalization that’s not justified,” he says, adding that since there is such a wide variety of difference between individual organic farms, it’s not informative to group them all together into one category. He also says that the studies have not addressed the secondary effects of agriculture, such as fertilizer runoff.
In addition to requiring decisions about what methods of farming to use, farmers have to be astute businesspeople. From a business perspective, New Jersey has its own advantages and challenges for farmers. On the plus side, New Jersey farms have some of the best market access in the world, with clientele that values local products produced on farms like Hyde’s. On the other hand, the state’s land costs are the second highest in the country, only behind Rhode Island.
Hyde says that to make it in this difficult environment, a farmer must have solid business skills, and NOFA provides training in this regard.
The workshop on the small farm dream is just one of the seminars that NOFA holds every year. Last year it held more than 100. It’s hard to keep people up in the boardroom when they could be down on the farm.
Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, 334 River Road, Hillsborough 08844. 908-371-1111. Adrian Hyde, executive director. www.nofanj.org.