By Allie Ward
Leaving a life in the corporate world to try organic farming may sound like a gamble, but for Honey Brook Organic Farm manager Jim Kinsel, it has paid dividends.
Kinsel, who holds a degree in mathematics, found his job as an actuary for Prudential depressing. He realized he wanted a job helping the environment. After assisting on an organic farm for a summer, Kinsel fell in love with the work and aspired to become a farmer.
He began Honey Brook, originally called Watershed Organic Farm, in 1991, and established a Community Supported Agriculture program. Dudas came on as farm planner in 2003, and together they have made Honey Brook one of the most successful operating organic farms in New Jersey.
A CSA is when a group of customers financially commit to supporting a farm in advance of the growing season, Dudas said.
“It’s similar to a gym membership where you pay your annual membership fee and in exchange you get the right to go to the gym. Here, you’re getting the right to either come to the farm once a week or have a box delivered once a week, and you’re sharing in the bounty of the farm.”
Honey Brook, nestled on Wargo Road in Pennington, started out at three and a half acres and about 60 members, and it has grown to encompass about 350 acres spread between five farms – three in Hopewell and two in Chesterfield – and more than 3,000 members. With 70 different crop offerings ranging from tomatoes to strawberries, Swiss chard to garlic, the farm is totally organic in its produce, substances and methods. The farm also affords members “pick-your-own” privileges, where they can go into the fields and pick crops or flowers.
“We’re inspected by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, and they make sure we’re using approved organic practices,” Dudas said.
However, operating an organic farm does present some problems when it comes to pests and weather.
“It’s a challenge, especially when you’re organic, because when you’re a conventional farmer, you have so many chemical inputs – either chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.”
Weather is also tricky, Dudas said. Too much rain, too little rain or extreme temperatures can all affect a crop’s success.
“There’s nothing you can really do except apologize during a wet year,” she said. “But many of our members kind of feel like they’re in it for the long haul so they know that some years there are peaks and some years there are valleys.”
Pricing produce is another issue, especially when it comes to organic food and its reputation for being expensive.
“We track what the retail price for organic food is at Whole Foods,” Dudas said. “Even in a bad year, we find that our members are paying about two-thirds of the retail price.”
Still, Honey Brook’s goal is to match conventional produce in affordability at a store like ShopRite.
Because the farm stresses locally grown, organic food, a relationship with the community it serves is vital, and both Kinsel and Dudas feel that outreach is important. The Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association brings its summer camp kids to the farm for environmental programming throughout the summer, area colleges and universities take trips to learn about viable farming career options and Honey Brook operates its own food bank.
The farm also serves as a source of food, employment and fun for area residents.
“There are not a lot of farms in the area that allow public access; they’re not into ‘pick-your-own,’” Dudas said. “So we do provide another source of recreation for families.”
Farm life has treated Kinsel and Dudas well. With five farms and a loyal following – Honey Brook has had a waiting list since 1992 – they pride themselves on helping people connect with the land and their source of food.
Dudas urges anyone interested in farming to take the risk, as it has paid off for her and her husband.
“When I decided to leave my job and farm full-time, the first people that balk are your family,” she said. “But we’d like people to consider that being in the local food movement really is a viable career path.”