The miracle of supply chains allows us to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables year round. But this is the Garden State, after all, and in the Garden State May is the month when hungry, healthy eaters regain the privilege of enjoying area farmers’ bounties after a winter of waiting.
That’s true even in a year when weather has been wacky. We’ve had a cold, snowy spring, yet farmers who haven’t been able to maintain their planned planting schedules get no reprieve. Warm days are finally here and that means long hours as they make up for lost time.
In the coming weeks, seasonal farmers markets will be opening for business once again throughout Central Jersey. Roadside farm stands will once again burst with the colors of nature, and participants in community-supported agriculture programs will once again receive their emails letting them know it’s time to go pick up the first shares of the year.
Honey Brook Organic Farm in Hopewell was one of the first farms in the area to offer community-supported agriculture — in which a shareholder makes an up-front financial commitment that infuses farms with cash early in the season, allowing them to make preparations that, if all goes well, will ensure a long and successful growing season. Once the farms start harvesting crops, shareholders see a return on their investment in the form of produce — usually, organic or virtually organic fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Honey Brook was one of the first, but it is by no means the only CSA in the area. In fact, the CSA concept has proved so successful that there are more CSAs now than there have ever been.
This includes two farms in Lawrence, one that’s been a CSA for many years (Cherry Grove Organic Farm, 11 Carter Road) and one that has switched to the CSA model more recently: Z Food Farm, 3501 Princeton Pike. CSA farms have been trying a variety of CSA models in an effort to provide customers with the best options to suit their needs, and these two are no exceptions.
Z-Food Farm is owned and operated by Dave Zaback, a former interm at Cherry Grove Organic. Z Food Farm is set to open in late May or early June and has gone to the CSA model, offering two kinds of shares: market shares and farm shares. Farm shares are the traditional CSA option. Shareholders can pick up shares of whatever is in season in the farm, with amounts based on crop yield.
Crops range from beets and cilantro to leeks and basil to potatoes and pumpkins. Shares are available Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 7 p.m., and there are two sizes of share available.
Market shares, the other option, work like debit cards. Shareholders purchase credit at the start of the season, to be spent throughout the year on whatever available items they want. The credit can be used as quickly or slowly as possible, but does not carry over to future years.
Cherry Grove Organic Farm used to offer farm shares, but two years ago switched to the market share model. Farmer Matt Conver says he made the change to give customers the freedom to take the fruits and vegetables they like most. The farm grows everything from peas and carrots to squash and eggplant to sweet potatoes and kale. (All farms have detailed lists of their crops on their websites).
In the traditional farm share model, shareholders get their portion of whatever is in season. In early spring, when cabbages and other leafy vegetables are in season, customers get cabbages and lettuce. When potatoes and onions are in season, they get potatoes and onions—but only as many as is their fair share. With farm shares, shareholders must either get to the pick-up spot each week or forfeit their share.
“The nice thing about the market share is they don’t have to come every week,” says Conver, who has been operating Cherry Grove Organic Farm for 17 years. “They can come twice a week spend all your money on tomatoes if you want. It’s worked out well. People really like flexibility. If they can’t make it one week, they’re not fretting about that.”
Just about every CSA has shares still available as we enter May, which not that long ago would have been unheard of, as shares often sold out well before harvest of spring crops even began. Conver admits that CSA participation has dipped in recent years, although he reports that Cherry Grove Organic Farm continues to do very well in farmers markets.
He’s not sure what the reason is for the drop in participation. He suspects that home-direct services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh have played some role, and notes that there are more CSA farms today than there have been. But he remains optimistic about the CSA model. “I personally think it’ll come back at some point,” he says.
Conver expects to start selling produce in the Cherry Grove Organic barn from 1 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting in late May or early June. There are three share prices: $250, $400 and $700, each offering a value bonus depending on which one you choose.
Down in Chesterfield, Fernbrook Farm is another community-supported agriculture program, one that has been doing this for 12 years. Fernbrook has stuck with the farm share model. They are targeting a May 26 date for the beginning of this year’s distribution. Farm share members can pick up mix-and-match batches of fresh produce every week.
Fernbrook CSA manager Jeff Tober agrees that competition has grown fiercer in recent years. But he says CSAs remain strong and one reason is because they offer great value.
“We do a pretty detailed price breakdown at the end of every year and $650 (the price of a Fernbrook Farm share) may sound like a lot, but when you consider all the produce you get, and the fact that we’re not using any chemicals, you’re getting a pretty good value for your food dollar,” he says.
Like many CSAs, Fernbrook Farm offers some pick-your-own crops. Blackberries, cherry tomatoes, tomatillos, basil and peas are just some of the PYO crops available each year at Fernbrook. Flowers are also available for members to cut during most of the growing season.
Pick-your-own allows the farm to save cost on harvesting, but Tober says there’s another reason to offer it: giving members a chance to spend time out in nature. “Every year in surveys a lot of people point out the beauty and the peacefulness of the farm,” he says. “God forbid if we lose too much of that connecting people to agriculture.”
Chickadee Creek Farm in Hopewell is another market-share CSA, although unlike Cherry Grove Organic, Chickadee Creek offers its produce at area farmers markets, including the Pennington and Princeton markets (see below).
For truly dedicated members Chickadee Creek offers yet another way to belong to a CSA: work shares. In exchange for produce from the farm, work-share members pledge to work weekly shifts on the farm, helping to harvest crops or do other necessary jobs on the farm. Work share members must apply and be accepted; for more specific information, see the Chickadee Creek website.
Windy Acres Farm in Robbinsville is another area CSA, but smaller than most. Where Fernbrook Farms offers 350 to 400 shares, Windy Acres has just 30 to offer. The CSA is sold out for this year, but Windy Acres will have a farm stand open at the farm, 214 Windsor Road, starting May 28 when if all goes well, strawberries will start to be available.
Farmer Amy Giovanelli grew up on Stults Farm in Cranbury, which her parents still operate today. The reason she can only offer 30 CSA shares is a good one: Giovanelli farms the entire 10-acre farm alone, with some help from her two children, Kathryn, 11, and Jonathan, 12. Husband Michael grew up on the land and helps out when he can. He is a fertilizer salesman full time — that is how the couple met.
Many CSAs grow more vegetables than fruit, a main reason being that fruit is more difficult to harvest. But Giovanelli takes on this challenge, growing not just strawberries but also blackberries, raspberries, grapes, apples and more.
A new crop set to be available from Windy Acres late in summer is donut peaches. The flattish, yellow-skinned fruit are smaller than regular peaches, less fuzzy and lower in acid. The trees were flowering in April, and the fruit should start being ready to pick in mid-August.
Once open, the Windy Acres farm stand will be open Mon through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Many locals know Cherry Grove Farm is on U.S. 206 in Lawrence. Like Terhune Orchards on Cold Soil Road, Cherry Grove Farm (owned and operated independently from the similarly named Cherry Grove Organic Farm), is open seven days a week year round.
As it always does, the farm will also have a stand at several farmers markets this season, including West Windsor. They sell pork, lamb, beef and veal as well as eggs at their stands, but they are probably best known for their cheeses.
Kathy Simon manages Cherry Grove’s farm store and events. But she also has experience working the stand. She says her favorite of cheesemaker Paul Lawler’s many varieties is Havilah, an alpine-style cheese that’s aged for 15 to 18 months. Other alpine-style cheeses include gouda, asiago and parmigiana. Havilah is described as having a rich mouthfeel with savory notes of pineapple, citrus and caramel.
Simon says a recent recipe Lawler has developed that’s been very popular has been Abruzze Jawn, a jack cheese that features sweet and smoky peppers. Abruzze Jawn won the 2016 blue ribbon from the American Cheese Society.
The most adventurous cheese customers are perhaps those who give Cherry Grove’s washed-rind cheeses a try. Washed-rind cheeses are moistened in brine solutions or, in the case of Cherry Grove’s Trilby cheese, Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey. The wash encourages the (carefully monitored) growth of bacterial that gives the cheese a funky, barnyard smell. Recently Cherry Grove added a second washed-rind cheese, called Rarebird, to the lineup. The Cherry Grove website’s tasting notes for Rarebird include descriptors like beef stock, shellfish and mushrooms.
Simon says when people stop by the Cherry Grove farm or market stands. she always encourages them to try samples of the cheeses. She says people are frequently surprised when they taste jack cheeses. “If they’ve only ever had store bought jack, then they’ve never had a grass-fed jack,” she says. “Before I came here I thought jack was nothing, a kid’s cheese. But made with grass-fed milk it’s totally different. The flavor of the milk really comes through.”
More information about Cherry Grove cheese, as well as their eggs and pastured meats, is on the web at cherrygrovefarm.com.
There’s nothing quite like the first visit of the year to a local farmers market. For one thing, we get to share our spring fever with everyone else after a winter indoors. Then, of course, there’s the abundance of goods on display. Invariably I find myself buying more than I need on the first visit of the year.
West Windsor Farmers Market is set to begin its season Saturday, May 5 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Vaughn Drive Lot of the Princeton Junction Train Station. WWFM will feature 16 farms and 14 food producers all hailing from within 50 miles of the market.
Live music is a feature always. Ed Goldberg and the Odessa Klezmer Band will be on hand for opening day. The market will continue every Saturday rain or shine through Nov. 17.
The Capital City Farmers Market will return Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. from May 17 to Oct. 26 in Mill Hill Park, 16 E. Hanover St. Also starting up that day will be the Princeton Farmers Market, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Hinds Plaza. Princeton is one market that has some rotating vendors. Rotating vendors for opening day are set to include Demi Olive Oil, Valley Shepherd Creamery, Wildflour Bakery and Mishti Chocolates. Darla and Rich will provide the musical entertainment.
Pennington Farmers Market will once again take place Saturdays May through November. Opening day is set for Saturday, May 26 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Rosedale Mills on Route 31 in Pennington.
Some farmers markets are holding off until later in the spring, or even summer, to get started. Greenwood Ave. Farmers Market is set to start up on Monday, June 11 from 1 to 6 p.m. at 427 Greenwood Ave. in Trenton. The market will run through Oct. 15.
The 31 and Main Farmers Market at Campus Town at The College of New Jersey is a go for another year, but won’t open until June 24. It will go from noon to 6 p.m. each week. Market manager Leslie Summiel Jr. says opening day (noon to 6 p.m.) will feature an auto show as well as local farm stands and food vendors.
And of course there’s Trenton Farmers Market at 960 Spruce St. in Lawrence . Trenton Farmers Market is open year round, but is at its most vibrant in the warm months.