by Jane Primerano
Farmers participating in the Foodshed Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Enterprises (SAgE) and some who would like to discuss their needs gathered in the Sussex County Freeholder’s meeting room earlier this year.
Kendrya Close, executive director of the Foodshed Alliance, explained the alliance was born out of Genesis Farm, an organic farm and learning center in Frelinghuysen Township, Warren County.
“Fixing our food system is our work,” she said.
The alliance is currently writing a grant to establish a food hub to facilitate distribution of healthy food to families. The group runs the Blairstown Farmers Market, but that model doesn’t seem to be working as well as it did, Close said. The alliance also hosts programs for farmers and is hoping to expand its education to schools and food pantries to assist families in need, she said.
SAgE was the brainchild of Program Director Eric Derby. It is located on 80 acres in Andover and Fredon townships owned by the Nature Conservancy. The conservancy is re-evaluating its commitment to land ownership and plans on concentrating on land restoration and recently turned the property over to the Ridge and Valley Conservancy.
SAgE is leasing out five- and 10-acre plots. The tract is a total of 333 acres, of which 60 are tillable.
The Ridge and Valley Conservancy will maintain the property’s wetlands and is also taking over an adjacent tract which includes Muckshaw Pond. The Nature Conservancy insisted on an accredited land trust being part of the land transfer, according to Bob Canace of the R&VC. Muckshaw Pond, which is across from the Wittingham Wildlife Management Area, is a 175-acre limestone forest with many sinkhole ponds with a rich habitat. Its proximity to the leased farms could encourage hikers to get to know the farmers, Lisa Kelly, development and communications director for the Foodshed Alliance, said.
Derby said the leases will last 10 years and will be renewable, a plus for farmers who must spend money on equipment and need the security of being on the land for more than a few years.
Another advantage SAgE can offer is that a formal lease will be used for each farmer. Dave Kimmel of the State Agricultural Development Board spoke on leasing at the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference on Feb. 1. He said many farm rentals in the state are on a handshake basis with no clarity as to how much the landlord is going to interfere or even if the landlord really understands farming.
Both SAgE and the SADC LandLease program look for farmers with some experience working for someone else because they are not educational programs. The farmer must present SAgE with a business plan and a marketing plan, Kimmel said.
Amber Sylvester, principal planner for Sussex County, said the SADC does have cost sharing for deer fencing. Mann noted members can participate in a culling program.
Electricity, water and common roads will also be provided to the lessees, Derby said. SAgE is planning a roadside market at the Andover site.
The Foodshed Alliance is also planning on providing more land for leasing at Bread Lock Park in the southern part of Warren County and possibly at the county-owned White Lake property.
Turtle Clan is leasing land
Some of the parcels are already spoken for, including a nine-acre parcel leased by Chief Vincent Mann of the Ramapough Munsee Turtle Clan for a medicinal garden.
Mann said he will raise hemp this season, grown the traditional way. He will send it to a factory to turn it into a medicinal product. Eventually, he would like to grow enough to pelletize for heat.
Hemp rejuvenates the soil, Mann pointed out.
“Hemp is for the benefit of the earth and the people,” he said. He also wants to plant the “Three Sisters” – beans, corn and squash.
Another future tenant will be Sussex County Community College. Professor Erin Collins explained the school has a one-year certificate in sustainable gardening and an agribusiness and horticultural science program as well as an agribusiness internship program. They want to do small grains, cut flowers and mushroom logs, she said. The ag marketing class is looking to sell product to students, faculty and staff.
College looking at curriculum
Collins said the college is looking at an expanded curriculum in sustainable gardening. Students will be planting a cover crop and possibly, at a later time, grains for the college’s culinary program’s pastry and bread. Alexander noted there is a good market for artisan grains.
Derby explained the SAgE property is not suited to large livestock on its 66 tillable acres. There are some natural sinkhole ponds on the rest. Livestock is also not being considered because of the lack of close slaughterhouses.
Some of the audience members are farming already and others are planning for the future.
Steven and Daniel Aiello traveled around the country looking for a place they are comfortable growing hemp and practicing regenerative agriculture. Steven said the market seems to be good in New Jersey.
He agrees with the SAgE philosophy that farmers who lease from them should have experience. “We have the benefit of a few years,” he said of himself and his brother.
Warren County Freeholder Director Richard Gardner said both the agriculture and environmental science school at Rutgers University and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture are looking at the possibility of large livestock slaughtering in state. He said the Board of Directors of the Hackettstown Cooperative Livestock Auction Market is also examining the possibility.
Derby and Close continue to promote the program through North Jersey, hoping to have all six parcels farmed by 2021.