Archive for the ‘Sustainable Ag’ Category

Have been absent for quite a while as I wrestled with a PhD program, my parents failing health, and field research on the aftermath of Sandy across the greater Metropolitan NYC area.

Lately, however, I have been thinking more and more about the NJ Food and Agriculture sector as I’ve been driving through what remains of the hinterlands of Monmouth County.

NJ Spotlight had a great article last week about the possible development of a food incubator in Northwest NJ as a way of managing remaining farmland in Sussex and Warren counties  and helping new and young farmers to get started and keep farming.


The Foodshed Alliance  was incorporated in 2010 as a formal organization dedicated to preserving the rural food systems of Northwest New Jersey and increasing rural resiliency in these same areas. They’ve been operating since 2001.

I was happy to see this article by NJ Spotlight as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about NJ Food and Agricultural systems prompted by some recent visits to Minneapolis that started me wondering again about the feasibility of a NJ-Wide Food System study, similar to the Greater Philadelphia Food System Study commissioned by The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in 2010.

A key part of my academic research covers community resource networks and “The Plural Sector”, the large expanse of ventures and organizations that are neither fully private nor fully public. So I was very excited to see some thought being given to alternative ways of organizing for success in NJ’s dwindling farmlands.

I hope to get a chance to visit and talk with the folks at the Foodshed Alliance this summer as a part of a relaunch of this blog.




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Recently the 106 acre George H. Urban farm in West Deptford Township was preserved via the efforts of Gloucester County Freeholder Robert Damminger. The newly preserved farm sits adjacent to 42 acres of previously preserved open space and has been owned and farmed by the same family since 1938. Over the course of its history the Urban farm has produced watermelon, tomatoes and asparagus and been a key part of the agricultural landscape of the South Jersey river towns. During his time in office, Freeholder Damminger has helped to preserve 17,690 acres of farmland and open space across Gloucester County.

This local announcement came a week after New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher and State Senate President Steve Sweeney announced a major milestone in the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program, the acquisition of 200,00 acres of preserved farmland across New Jersey.

Local efforts like Freeholder Damminger’s in West Deptford contribute greatly to the state’s efforts to continue to preserve New Jersey farmlands and ensure that farming remains a viable economic activity throughout New Jersey.

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Great Wall Street Journal Report segment this morning on urban farming in Brooklyn. Maria Bartiromo interviewed Ben Flanner the Brooklyn Grange CEO, Ben Flanner and Brightfarms CEO Paul Lightfoot.

Flanner runs one of the largest rooftop soil farms in the world which focuses on direct sales to the local community via sales to local restaurants, farmers markets and CSA shares.

Lightfoot focuses on a different model which focuses on building strong local agriculture supply chains by helping to finance and develop hydroponic greenhouses in under utilized urban spaces. Lightfoot has produce supply agreements with A&P, SuperValu, and Cub (a supermarket brand of SuperValu). Brightfarms is operating in Brooklyn and Chicago and building a facility in St. Paul Minnesota as well.

We’re starting to see movement on urban agriculture here in New Jersey, the Schools Development Authority is leasing land in Newark’s South Ward as an urban farm but overall we lag the urban farming movements quickly growing in Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul and other northern urban centers.

However, New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher has a been an early proponent of

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Two interesting articles about the potential role of local agriculture in regional economic systems. The first from The New York Times: Small Farmers Creating a New Business Model as Agriculture Goes Local focusing mainly on the small farm movement in the Pacific Northwest,

and the second from Gannett:
Rutgers looking to expand farming ‘incubators’ in Central Jersey

Both articles are must reads and focus on the development of agriculture and food systems as key drivers of local economies.

The Times story focuses on the emergence of small farms as new loci of employment and economic development. On small farms labor is more likely to be a function of local employment and ownership and less dependent on seasonal migration from Latin America. This doesn’t mean a new nativism or displacement of migrant workers, but rather new opportunities.

The Times story discusses several Hispanic agripreneurs associated with Viva Farms which serves as a farming incubator for the Skagit Valley in Washington State.

In Minnesota a similar agripreneur project is run by the Rural Enterprise Center which is a program of the Mainstreet Project.

I had an opportunity to visit it in 2009 while on an extended trip to Minnesota: Small-Scale Poultry Processing – Rural Revolution in Minnesota? Rebirth in New Jersey?. In 2009 I wrote:

Traditionally, both rural New Jersey and upstate New York were home to small-scale, usually family run, chicken farms that supplied their local communities and immediate regions. Over the last twenty to thirty years many of these operations went out of business or were subsumed by large agribusiness enterprises like Perdue and Tyson. While land is prohibitively more expensive in New Jersey and in those areas of New York with good proximity to urban markets; small-scale, family run chicken farming might be an opportunity for the Garden State’s immigrant population. Many of these older farms in NJ and NY were run by first and second generation Eastern European immigrants and perhaps there’s an opportunity for the areas many Hispanic and Latino immigrants to develop family enterprises using the system being developed in Southern Minnesota.

Closer to home, Gannett reports that Robert Goodman, Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources is hoping to develop new “farming incubators” and food innovation centers in Central New Jersey, most likely in Somerset County. Rutgers already has a food innovation center deep in South Jersey in Bridgeton. According to Gannett, the existing Food Innovation Center at Rutgers has assisted in the development of 40 new food products while serving 1,300 clients and training over 1,000 people since it’s launch in 2001.

This is where New Jersey’s true competitive advantage lies, in the development of small farm enterprises, regional food systems and food innovation networks. With historic and unparallelled access to major urban markets throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, few regions or states can compete with the Garden State when it comes to local agricultural commerce.

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Perhaps in New Jersey the new concept of terraculture is just reinventing our old forms of agriculture, the kind that has given us the nickname the Garden State.

This TEDx talk by Jon Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota details the ways in which our agricultural practices contribute to climate change and calls for new practices that feed the world’s growing population while decreasing agriculture’s impact on land, water and climate.

Agriculture uses 70% of the water people consume worldwide, contributes 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 60 times more land than suburban and urban land uses combined. Foley argues that we need to direct agriculture to areas where it already works well instead of constantly expanding into new and uncultivated areas.

In New Jersey, we’ve been using many of our agricultural lands since the 17th century. How’s that for reuse!

Foley calls for a new kind of agriculture that brings together the best ideas of commercial farming and the green revolution with the best practices of organic farming and environmental conservation.

New Jersey may be well suited for this intertwining of farms, open space and business development as I pointed out in my 2010 post Farms, Open Space Preservation and Business Development: Perfect Together!”

Our incredibly fertile soil, our abundant water resources and location between New York and Philadelphia as well as being right smack dab in the middle of the Boston to Washington D.C. megalopolis makes agriculture New Jersey’s one true competitive advantage.

However, New Jersey’s land base is under pressure and we need to make bioregional agriculture, open space preservation, and water supply & quality preservation a top-level, statewide priority now. All of these issues are key parts of New Jersey’s $82 billion food and agricultural complex.

Agriculture, open space preservation and water quality are entangled issues in New Jersey and need to be addressed in concert with one another as we develop plans for New Jersey’s future and struggle to jump start the economy.

Foley’s presentation is now up on the worldwide TED site as well as the TEDx site and is just under 18 minutes long. It’s well worth every minute.

Update Cross-posted at Blue Jersey

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Excellent discussion in yesterday’s New York Times Room for Debate section. It raises serious questions about how we value labor in this country and what paths exist to the middle class for both native-born and foreign-born workers alike. The reality is that Latino labor plays a critical role in the American economy, even at a time of record high unemployment.

In my research on U.S. Agriculture and in conversations with farmers, the role of Latino workers is very prevalent. Latino’s bring certain sector and industry specific skills to areas like agriculture. And Latino’s from rural parts of Latin America may even represent a possible solution to the increasing age of the North American Farmer.

Could U.S. Farms Survive Without Illegal Labor?

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Editor’s Note: This is Jesse Dean’s inaugural post for pocket farms. He’ll be writing about his experiences with the Sunset View Farms CSA and more broadly about local agriculture and markets in Hudson County — the most densely populated county in the most densely populated state. Jesse will also provide his perspective on the organic and sustainable trends from time to time. Welcome aboard Jesse! -jack

Byline: Jesse Dean

This week the Sunset View Farm CSA in Andover delivered its first produce of the season to me and approximately 20 other members living in Hoboken. The small delivery included leaf lettuces and herbs but like many farms in the Northeast, the growing season is delayed by a few weeks due to the wet and cool early spring.

Still, it was exciting to receive the first bit of bounty from the small family farm in Sussex County.

I joined the CSA in March with trepidation: it was their inaugural CSA outside of the County, the farm manager could only estimate the weekly quantity and variety of produce they would deliver, and I had no way of knowing whether I would hear again from the farm manager after I gave him a check.

My concerns were alleviated however, after I met the farm manager, Matthew Odenthal, a Jersey City resident, at a Hoboken Starbucks to discuss the farm and his vision of how the CSA would work.

I struggled to keep up with him as he spoke energetically of their farming activities as they were carefully tending to seedlings in advance to the planting season. He spoke with the passion of Joel Salatin (Polyface Farm) and with the agricultural vernacular I had known as a kid. Then he ran his finger down an expansive planting list featuring a mouth-watering array of herbs, vegetables and fruits and I was hooked. I eagerly handed over my payment.

Yet a nagging doubt persisted and I wanted to meet the Farm’s owner, if not to allay my concerns, to thank her for working to grow the food I’d be enjoying over the summer and fall. Finally, a dry weekend was forecasted in mid-May and after confirming with Matt that he’d be at the farm, I gathered my partner and a friend for a Saturday field trip.

Matt welcomed us enthusiastically and introduced us to Linda Grinthal, the farm’s owner.

Their 20-acre property is bordered by trees and lies on a western-facing slope and with breathtaking views of High Point, NJ to the north and Pennsylvania mountains to the west.

The property wasn’t a farm when they purchased it, but her family has been converting it into a working farm, which now includes chickens and a chicken coop, bee hives (managed by a neighbor), a community garden and rows of freshly tilled gardens with freshly planted seedlings. They are not organic certified, but they avoid pesticides and herbicides and grow with organic methods.

Linda and her husband were doing well professionally when they decided to abandon their jobs and hectic life in Hackensack to raise their kids in a more gentle setting.

“We had a condo overlooking a parking lot,” Linda explained to me. Their young family was expanding after the birth of their third child and they were tiring of the stresses of urban living. Then one day her young son used street language he had learned from his playmates, and Linda knew it was time to leave. “My husband and I looked at each other and in six months we sold the condo and bought this place.”

I was impressed with the openness in which Linda and her family shares their farm. A dozen or so local residents rent or barter for plots of a community garden and cover for each other by watering and weeding when one of them can’t make to the farm. That day three men and their dogs were busy working in their assigned plot. Across from them, a local pastor was tending to his barley plants, in which he will use to produce beer.

For more than two hours Matt led us through nearly every corner of the farm – yanking pesky wild mustard weed from the ground when we encountered it – and explaining what was planted. He would pluck leaves for us to sniff or give us samples of mint and wild herbs to take home.

Matt had been a cable and telecommunications technician for nearly two decades and although he was raised in Hudson County, he explained he always had a green thumb, growing food for his parents. He maintains a backyard garden at his Jersey City home, which he shares with his wife and two children.

Matt met Linda at a Sussex County fair a few years ago. They found each other by pure serendipity. While waiting for their kids to finish a ride on a Ferris Wheel, they started chatting. Linda talked about her farm and Matt was intrigued. Struck by the similarities in their surnames, they stayed in touch and Matt eventually accepted the position as their farm manager. He often puts in 12 hours or more each day and works seven days a week.

Last night Matt and his wife delivered the small bag of herbs and lettuces and although it was late he stayed for a few minutes to chat. “I know it’s small but more is coming, a lot more.”

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