by Richard Skelly
FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, NJ – No one is more aware of the value of suburban real estate than Ryck Suydam. A 13th generation farmer of Dutch descent, he is president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. Suydam’s family has been farming in the New Brunswick area since 1713.
In setting up his multi-faceted retail stand (which he and his wife Cathy tackled in stages, as funds permitted), he could have easily set it up on busy Route 27, one of the oldest roads in the Garden State. Suydam’s Farm is midway between New Brunswick and Princeton. But, Suydam explained, he wanted to offer customers something more, so he located it off nearby Bennet’s Lane.
“When I had the chance to build this farm stand, I could have done it on the highway, but I didn’t want it to be like every other roadside stand,” Suydam said. There, he could expose his farm’s produce and value-added products to 40,000 cars a day, and perhaps even more potential customers on weekends. “I wanted it to be a destination, so we built it back here.”
By locating the entrance to Suydam Farms’ retail store off Bennett’s Lane, patrons can enjoy fresh air, a 2,000-yard driveway and a walk out to see and pet the sheep and cows, feed chickens and spend time on a working farm.
Suydam’s ancestors made the move to Franklin Township in 1713 after 50 years of farming in Brooklyn. They crossed the Atlantic from Holland on the Rose Tree.
“We’ve been farming in the same place ever since and by evolving with agricultural trends and needs, we’re still here, with everything from fruit trees and vegetables to beef. We converted from 100% dairy farm in the middle of the last century, rotated back to hay for the horse industry and beef, and now, we have greenhouses with flowers and vegetables as well as beef and pork for retail,” Suydam explained.
Suydam’s background includes involvement in 4-H from the time he was in sixth grade. He attended the University of Maine, then spent two years as a history teacher. After college, “I wasn’t making enough teaching or farming, so we got into the insurance business,” he recalled. He pointed out that 80% of U.S. farmers wear other occupational hats for additional income.
“It could be a spouse who’s working off the farm or a part-time job in the winter to supplement income,” he said. “We as farmers have a lot to do, so people think if you’re working this hard you’ve got to be making money. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t!”
Farmers in the grain business are affected by world politics and prices can go down, he said, “yet your inputs – your fuel, your labor, your fertilizer costs – all stay the same.” Fortunately, having a retail farm stand just about midway between New York City and Philadelphia ensures plenty of customers, unlike farm stands in more remote areas.
Asked about his value-added retail operations, Suydam – who also does a lot of hay farming for the state’s horse farms – just brought in some beef cattle to try his hand at that. In general, he, his wife Cathy and his sister-in-law Nancy have seen their retail store continue to grow.
“We’re growing more in the greenhouses now and we’re doing a bit more with beef and pork all the time,” he said, noting he cooperates a lot with his farming neighbors, buying goods from them to sell at the farm market.
“We sell Griggstown Farms’ pot pies, so there’s no reason for me to invest in my own commercial kitchen. [Owner] George Rude already has one,” he said, noting he’s right down the road. “Jim Giamarese in East Brunswick is a great sweet corn grower, and I’m a poor sweet corn grower, so we go and pick his corn and sell it here, while he uses some of my straw and hay for his operation.”
The scope of his operations includes pigs and cows for meat, vegetable seedlings, fresh fruit and vegetables and egg-laying chickens. By leasing land from a neighbor (the Puskas Family Dairy Farm), Suydam presides over 150 acres of wheat and 250 acres of hay.
“We also have two acres of vegetables and a little blackberry patch, and some permanent pasture for steers and sheep,” he noted. Suydam has one full-time, year-round employee.
“We don’t do strawberries – they’re too fickle. We’ll do some blackberries along with other fruit. It’s hard to do everything,” he argued, noting the biggest part of Suydam Farms’ operation is their hay. Suydam and his crew will do 30,000 bales of hay a year.
Given his role as a leader among farmers in the Garden State, Suydam was candid about his own successes and failures. He said, “I’m trying to implement changes and improvements slowly, so you don’t take such a big bite. I’m trying to make smaller mistakes.” And, he added, it seems to be working.
The current version of their retail stand was launched in 2008. It is only open on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We have a wonderful customer base here,” Cathy Suydam explained. “These people make requests, and as much as possible, we like to satisfy them. We bring in products they’ve tried and liked. I would say 80% of what we sell here is locally sourced.”
Although Ryck and Cathy made a conscious decision to expand their retail operations in 2008, Cathy said most of the growth has been in the last five years. “We added picnic tables to take care of our loyal customer base,” she noted, gesturing to a parking area that can accommodate at least 30 cars.
Ryck Suydam offered this advice for younger farmers or smaller farmers looking to set up retail stands: “You’ve got to mind your dollars. Don’t expect to get rich right away. You may never get rich, but like any business – farming is no different, you’ve got to be capitalized – you can’t go in there with 20 bucks in your pocket. That’s why so many farmers are working at jobs off the farm. They’re doing both and there’s nothing wrong with that. I do it, and a lot of my friends do it.
“To young folks, I’ll say this: Agriculture is only going in one direction, and that’s up. People eat – sometimes they eat three times a day. If you can provide a product in a niche that nobody else is doing, you’ve got a leg up.”
He also said not to be afraid to lean on your partners, your Extension service and your state’s Farm Bureau. “They get paid to do it – and go out and join your county Board of Agriculture and don’t be afraid to go and ask for help,” he said.
“When you’ve got a 9-to-5 and you can work early in the morning and later into the evening and on weekends,” he said, “you kind of have to have something as a backstop when your crop fails, otherwise a younger farmer can get discouraged and be out of business way too soon.”