Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 28
 
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
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Honey Brook Organic Farm CSA Offers Variety of Fresh Produce

Jean Stratton

We're all in this together, and together, we can make a difference. Whether it's getting "green" by buying organic produce, emphasizing environmentally-friendly, energy-efficient products, looking into buying a hybrid vehicle, or planting a garden without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, it is possible to be part of the solution, not the problem."

This is certainly the viewpoint of Honey Brook Organic Farm CSA, located at 260 Wargo Road in Pennington. One of the oldest operating organic farms in New Jersey, Honey Brook also focuses on its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. In such a program, members of the community help support the farm by buying a share before the growing season, which entitles them to a weekly portion of freshly-harvested vegetables and fruits from June to November.

"We were the second CSA farm to open in New Jersey," says Honey Brook farm planner Sherry Dudas. "It was established by Jim Kinsel in 1991 on land leased from the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Reserve, and was originally known as the Watershed Organic Farm CSA."

The land's history dates back even further, having been farmed at least as early as 1849, and was owned by several different farming families. In 1979, it was known as Brookside Farm, and owned by the Wargo family, who raised pigs.

Neighboring Farm

They wanted the land to be preserved, not developed, explains Ms. Dudas, and they sold the farm to Dr. Muriel Gardiner Buttinger, who lived at a neighboring farm, now the headquarters of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. Dr. Buttinger transferred a total of 300 acres of her farm, as well as donating the Brookside Farm to the Watershed Association.

Plans to create an organic educational farm were set in motion, and it became one of the Watershed's programs. The first farm manager was hired in 1984.

"In 1991,the Watershed leased the land to farmers who would farm it as a for-profit business, operating on non-profit land," points out Ms. Dudas. "The Watershed charged very little rent, and has been very supportive."

When Jim Kinsel came to the farm in 1991, he brought the CSA marketing model to the farm, and recruited 60 initial members and farmed 3.5 acres. They also set up a weekly, on-site retail farm market.

"The original members, who came from Pennington, Hopewell, Princeton, and Ewing, were really risk-takers," says Ms. Dudas. "Because of them, we were able to get initial advance money coming in to help cover our expenses and help us get started."

It was surely an idea whose time had come. In the ensuing 16 years, not only has Honey Brook grown in size, expanding to 90 acres, 60 of which are tillable, and 30 woodlands and wetlands, it has increased the variety of produce to meet the rising demand.

Dramatic Rise

"We are running the largest CSA program in the nation, and we sell out shares every year," reports Ms. Dudas, who joined the farm in 2003 following a career in the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

The dramatic rise in consumer interest in all things organic is attributable to concern over healthy eating, she believes. More people are paying attention to what they are putting in their and their families' mouths.

To qualify as organic, produce must be grown without use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, she says. "We use beneficial insects and plant compost. We don't use sewage sludge (biosolids), animal manures, or genetically-engineered crops. We also harvest and handle our produce using methods that maximize freshness, flavor, and nutritional value.

"One of the biggest benefits of eating organic produce is that there is no residue of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers," she adds. "Some of these have been linked to breast cancer. In New Jersey, just by living here, you are exposed to pollutants, so it's good to eliminate all you can. In addition, by choosing organic produce, you are supporting the environment, the soil, and helping protect wildlife habitat. There are no harmful pesticides on the fields to endanger animals and birds. Even the conventional farmers are beginning to convert some acres to organic produce."

Sustainable Agriculture

In addition to its designation as organic and CSA, Honey Brook also qualifies as a sustainable agriculture program. Such a system emphasizes protecting and enhancing natural resources, using alternatives to pesticides, and caring for the health and well-being of farm workers and rural communities.

Important factors in sustainable agriculture include:

• Using a range of natural pest controls, such as beneficial insects, also careful weather monitoring, and scouting;

• Using the least toxic pesticides when natural methods don't work (in this case, it differs from organic farming, which never uses synthetic pesticides);

• Improving soil by natural methods, such as crop rotation and cover crops;

• Protecting clean drinking water and fish habitat by providing buffer zones in riparian areas;

• Providing wild life habitat and encouraging residency by growing some year-round vegetative cover for shelter and food;

• Continually improving farming practices to make them more economically sound, socially conscious, and economically viable.

"We try as much as we can not to degrade the farmland," says Ms. Dudas. "We use leaf compost to replenish nutrients in the soil and also alfalfa pellets. We get the leaves from Hopewell Borough and Pennington Borough. Jim is a careful steward of the Watershed's property."

Mr. Kinsel — "Farmer Jim", as he is known — is a serious, conscientious farmer, who loves what he does, points out Ms. Dudas, adding that farming was not his first career, but that it is his life's work. "Jim grew up in Somerset County. His dad was an engineer at Bell Labs, and his mom was a school teacher. He had no agricultural background, and was working in the actuarial department of Prudential in Newark, calculating life insurance payments.

Health-conscious

"He realized this was not what he wanted to do with his life — something was missing. He felt he wanted to do something to benefit society, so he took agricultural courses at Rutgers. He was also health-conscious. His dad died at 52 from a heart attack."

Perhaps healthier eating could make a difference, and Mr. Kinsel began farming in 1988, working at Howell Living History Farm and others in the area. He began to see the value of Community Supported Agriculture, and as he says, "There's a real hunger in New Jersey for the CSA program."

CSA members at Honey Brook include all ages and backgrounds. Artists, conservationists, innovative restaurateurs, food historians, and health-conscious parents and their children all support the farm. They have access to three different programs: family share, individual share, and delivered boxed share. In some cases, people join together to purchase a share.

A family share generally feeds two to three adults; an individual, one to two. It can depend, however, not just on the number of persons in the household, but on eating habits. Members arrive at the farm on their designated day to pick up their produce, and also, if they wish, to participate in the "Pick Your Own" program, offering opportunities to pick flowers, berries, and vegetables in the fields.

The boxed share differs in that freshly-boxed produce is delivered weekly in refrigerated trucks to a specific location. In Princeton, it is at the Whole Earth Center, where members pick it up. It contains slightly less produce than the family share. Honey Brook now has selected sites for boxed shares in other parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Costs are $549 for family ($21.96 a week); $341 for individual ($13.64 a week); and $577 for boxed ($33.08 a week).

Flavorful Fruits

Members sing the praises of the fresh, flavorful fruits and vegetables, and they know they can count on the quality. "This is my second season with Honey Brook," says Princeton resident Lorraine Edwards. "I really love to cook and I love to use organic vegetables for my family. It's healthier, and I also like the fact that they have things I wouldn't normally get, such as Swiss chard and bok choy. They are so fresh and taste so good, but I wouldn't buy them in the supermarket."

Ms. Edwards also emphasizes another aspect of Honey Brook's appeal. "I really like driving out there, going to the farm and being on the farm. It's a very enjoyable experience, and I always wait to be surprised to see what I'll get. I never miss my day."

For those who want to know what produce will be available ahead of time, there is a Veggie Hotline, as well as a website. In addition, Ms. Dudas prepares a monthly newsletter, The Local Harvest, featuring the latest crop information for the coming weeks.

Direct interaction with the farmer and the staff is another important part of CSA. "You're getting to know the farmer who grows your food, and this is beneficial," says a Honey Brook member.

Nutritional Value

Buying locally also saves energy, adds Ms. Dudas. "Did you know that it takes about a half-cup of diesel fuel to transport a single head of lettuce from California to the East coast? Think of the fuel savings when you buy from a farm nearby. Also, the nutritional value of the produce doesn't decline as it does when it sits on the supermarket shelves."

Honey Brook is committed to providing the healthiest and tastiest produce it can. An extraordinary range of choices is available, from arugula, basil, beets and broccoli to carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers and cilantro to eggplant, endive and escarole, to parsley, peppers, potatoes, and pumpkins to so much, much more, including watermelons, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

"Jim continues to expand, improve, and diversify the CSA, making it one of the most successful farms of its type in the U.S." says Ms. Dudas. "We grow more than 60 types of crops and 350 varieties, including many gourmet varieties and rare heirloom vegetables. We have richly favored pink Brandywine tomatoes, the crimson and white candy-striped Dolce Di Chioggia beet, and a wide range of beautifully colored and extraordinarily flavorful peppers, eggplants, beans and squashes, many of which are not available elsewhere."

Attesting to the high quality found at Honey Brook is a Griggstown resident, who purchased a boxed share for the first time this season. "We wanted to eat healthier and have more organic food, and when I heard about Honey Brook, I wanted to try it. I have been so pleased. The produce has been extraordinarily fresh and flavorful, and I am also getting new things, which I hadn't had before, and which lead to new recipes!"

Always Welcome

Such praise is becoming commonplace — and always welcome — to Honey Brook, as the farm's reputation grows. It has received state and national coverage in the New York Times, Time Magazine and on CNN, among others. A group from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture recently toured the farm and learned more details of its history and operation, and Farmer Jim served on Governor Corzine's agriculture advisory group.

The farm has also been the site of special events, including the wedding of Ms. Dudas and Mr. Kinsel in 2005. Surrounded by home-grown flowers from the fields and the unique ambiance of this special place, the bride and groom and guests were treated to a memorable day.

A visit to Honey Brook is indeed a special experience. It is stepping back into a less hurried, less high tech time, where one can appreciate the quiet pleasures of the natural world. Picnic tables, playground equipment for children, and Jack, the farm dog are all part of the rural scene. Visitors and members also have access to the Watershed's fishing ponds and trails.

"The relationship with the Watershed has been so beneficial," says Ms. Dudas. "People tell us they want to experience a farm in a different way. They are interested in the preservation of open space, and they like the idea of fishing and hiking, all of which we can offer."

Going to the farm is a particular pleasure for Princeton resident Steve Marks, who has been a CSA member since 2002. "We belonged to a CSA group when we lived in Delaware, and we were looking for a similar operation," he explains. "We like the chance to get this nice fresh organic produce every week. It's healthy, environmentally-friendly, and tastes good. You also get a chance to go out in a field and pick your own vegetables, berries, or flowers. And you meet nice people. I don't see why everyone doesn't do this."

Indeed.

No shares are available for this season, but for more information, call (609) 737-8899. Website: www.honeybrookorganicfarm.com.

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