Farming culture thrives amid suburban landscape

By: Lisa Merolla , Staff Writer , Lawrence Ledger As published 06/26/2008

Five direct to consumer farms currently operate in Lawrence

 Lois Pauley emerged from the strawberry fields at Terhune Orchards last week, slightly sweaty but pleased with her overflowing carton of ripe, red berries. The Montgomery Township resident was planning a fruitcake for that night, but she didn’t want to use supermarket strawberries.

   ”Those California things are horrible,” she said. “They’re like rubber balls.”

   Ms. Pauley looks locally to get her fresh fruit fix. Thankfully for her and other locavores, Lawrence Township offers a wide variety of local farms.

   While Central Jersey has experienced a development spike in recent years, Lawrence included, this 23-square-mile township of about 30,000 residents has been able to maintain significant areas of farmland, providing folks with local food and a rich farming culture.

   ”If this region has anything resembling a bread basket, it’s Lawrence Township,” said Ralph Copleman, executive director of the environmental group Sustainable Lawrence. “This area has more active farms than other towns.”

   In total, about 15 farms and nurseries operate in Lawrence Township. The direct-to-consumer farms, five in total, produce fruits, vegetables, cheese and meat — all fresh and better tasting than supermarket fare, supporters assert. These farms supply farmers’ markets, host festivals and show locals where their food comes from.

 In addition, the role of local farms is growing as people continue to focus on the environment.

   ”It makes our energy footprint smaller,” Mr. Copleman said. “The nearer the food source, the more environmentally savvy you’re being.”

   With all these benefits, local foods have captured the attention of many people. Mikey Azzara, director of outreach for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, based in Pennington, said the township has preserved some 25 percent of its land as parkland, farmland or open space. He called that an “awesome figure” for a town between Princeton and Trenton.

 ”We’re setting the standard for quality of life by maintaining the balance between development and open space and farmland,” Mr. Azzara said. “It’s amazing.”

   Mr. Azzara, who grew up in Lawrence Township and is president of the Lawrenceville Main Street neighborhood group, said the township’s ability to retain farms in the face of encroaching development is due to the attitudes of its farmers. A lot them did not grow up on a farm; rather, farming is something they have chosen to devote their lives to.

   ”There’s an energy about farming in town,” he said. “There’s a lot of young people involved.”

Where it began

   The current farming culture in Lawrence really began with Terhune Orchards, Mr. Azzara noted. The Cold Soil Road farm was purchased by Pam and Gary Mount in 1975.

   ”They set the stage in a lot of ways,” said Mr. Azzara, who also manages Lawrenceville Main Street’s weekly summer farmers market, held Sundays on Gordon Avenue. “They do a great job of getting people out on the farm and providing that experience.”

Interest in local farming has climbed since. When Terhune began, it was the only farm in Lawrence selling directly to customers, Mr. Mount said. Now, 33 years later, there are at least five farms in the township providing direct sales.

   Most township farms remain concentrated in the northern region of Lawrence, away from the developed area surrounding Trenton. The township grew outward from Trenton, Ms. Mount said, placing houses and commercial centers near the state capital. Only northern Lawrence has the land needed to support large farms.

   ”You can’t farm without land,” said Ms. Mount, also a Township Council member. “Southern Lawrence doesn’t have enough land.”

  The southern part of town still provides residents with farming culture, however. The Trenton Farmers Market, for example, sells local foods daily on Spruce Street. And closer to Princeton, farms are flourishing. Ms. Mount said there are now 2,000 acres of permanently preserved land along Cold Soil Road alone.

   Mr. Mount said Lawrence’s farming community is still strong, and he credited the farms’ continued success to the town and its residents.

   ”It’s a tremendous achievement,” he said. “It benefits everybody in our town. They see that having a mixed landscape in our town is a good thing, rather than have it all built out, having every square foot built upon. That’d be a pretty bad place to live.”

How it works

   A variety of programs have kept Lawrence’s farms and open spaces safe from development and in the business of producing local food. For example, Mr. Mount cited the Right to Farm law, which protects farming activity from legal action. The act lets farmers run tractors, use pesticides if necessary and irrigate crops without fear of complaint from town residents.

   Mr. Mount also described Lawrence’s buffer ordinance, which requires developments built near farms to include a buffer region. The buffer — consisting of a fence and some vegetation — works to reduce conflict between new residents and farms. In addition, Lawrence Township collects an open-space tax to purchase land that might otherwise have been developed.

 Perhaps the most important safeguard for farmers is New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program, organized by the State Agriculture Development Committee. The program allows farmers to sell their development rights in exchange for permanent preservation of the farm, said township Municipal Manager Richard Krawczun.

   Mr. Krawczun said the township has been a strong supporter of the program, adding that most Lawrence farms are part of it.

   ”It’s about them being able to sustain their businesses,” he said. “It allows for future generations of the family to be able to continue farming in our community.”

  Lawrence’s farms have prospered under this protection, providing the community with a wide variety of foods, initiatives and activities. Each farm offers different products and a different atmosphere.

Where to go

   The 200-acre Terhune Orchards currently grows 36 different crops, selling them at the farm, at farmers’ markets (including the Lawrenceville Farmers’ Market) and delivering them to local schools. In addition, customers can pick their own apples, pumpkins and berries.

  Cherry Grove Organic Farm, about 20 acres on Carter Road, sells 40 different types of vegetables, as well as a variety of flowers. The farm employs Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where people buy a share in the farm at the beginning of the season and come once a week to pick up food. More than 200 local families currently participate in the program, said Matt Conver, the farm’s manager.

   ”Here in Mercer County, there’s a great customer base,” he said. “People are interested in buying locally. They’re excited to come to farms and get stuff locally.”

   Village Farms covers about 40 acres of land and operates a food stand on Route 206, selling fruits and vegetables to passing drivers as they enter or leave the township’s historic Village of Lawrenceville. The farm is best known for its sweet corn, which attracts customers from as far away as Philadelphia, said Walter Bonczaiewicz, whose family has owned Village Farms since 1978.

  ”It’s all family,” he said of the farm. “The children worked the stand, now the grandchildren. It’s been family-run since day one.”

   Little Acres Farm is another family run operation. The 60-acre farm, operated by Karen Wilk, runs two stands in town, one on Lawrenceville-Pennington Farm and another on Princeton Pike. They sell fruits and vegetables in the summer, providing pumpkins and gourds in the fall, and have Christmas trees and wreaths in the winter. The Wilks, who grew up in the Village of Lawrenceville, have been farming here for 21 years.

   The 400-acre Cherry Grove Farm on Route 206 has carved out its own niche among the different Lawrence farms, offering cheese and meat products. The farm’s food includes handmade cheeses, grass-fed beef and lamb, heirloom pork and free-range eggs, said farm manager Kelly Harding. The farm lets visitors watch a cow milking every day at 4 p.m. and hosts a “Pasture Party” every November.

   ”It’s important for the general public to have some kind of connection to where the food comes from,” Mr. Harding said. “It keeps the farmers responsible and puts a face on what you’re doing.”

   Both Cherry Grove and Cherry Grove Organic are owned locally by the Hamill family. The family has owned land in Lawrence since around 1910, said Oliver Hamill, and is committed to preserving it, including small plots of land with hay and sheep. About six years ago, the family also decided to make all their farms organic.

   Turning organic takes a while, but the Hamill’s eventually want to convert all their farms. The process requires not farming the land for several years to purge the land of herbicides and pesticides. In addition, all animals on the farm have to be fed organic hay, which is more expensive than other hay. But Mr. Hamill said the process is worth it.

   ”We feel very strongly that preserving the natural environment is something that we really need to do,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we have this. ... My response is to ensure that it’s really well-cared for, make sure that it’s totally organic and do all we can to help out.”

   There are more opportunities in the community for farming to thrive. The Lawrenceville Farmers’ Market allows farmers from both inside and outside Lawrence to sell their products to the public. The Lawrenceville Culinary Partnership works to bring together local restaurants and farmers, and town schools are growing gardens. In addition, the Recreation Department runs a 2-acre community plot that allows residents to maintain their own garden plots for a nominal fee. The area includes 120 plots, each 20 by 20 feet, and the township provides necessities like mulch and water pumps.

   Mr. Azzara said these efforts are very important to Lawrence’s flourishing farm culture.

   ”We should make sure that, essentially, we keep it the Garden State,” he said.

   Back at Terhune Orchards, Hamilton resident Lillian Leigh has spent the day picking strawberries and watching animals with her two kids. She said her family has come to the farm five or six times a year for three years, and plans to continue the young tradition.

   ”It’s just a warm, fuzzy feeling here,” Ms. Leigh said.

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