Stuck above Tessa Lowinske Desmond’s desk in Princeton University is a yellow post-it note with a quote. “Eating is an agricultural act,” it reads.
For some, where the food in grocery stores or in restaurants comes from is something of little significance. But for Lowinske Desmond, 38, and a number of local farmers in Hopewell, New Jersey, what we eat and where we get it from is of great importance.
A faculty member of Princeton’s Department of American Studies, Lowinske Desmond has been a long-time academic and agriculturalist. Her love of the land is something that goes back to her roots in rural Minnesota. “All the stories growing up were about farming,” she said.
“I did what I could to scratch the itch,” she said. “I just wanted to be farming.”
Raised by a single mother, Lowinske Desmond moved 17 times during her 18 years at home. One memory that stuck with her throughout is one of her grandmother’s root cellar, packed full of canned vegetables and goods from her grandparents’ garden.
“I used to go down there and just stare at the cans,” she said. “I have, over time, come to think about why those memories hold such sway for me. And I think it was the idea that there was a thoughtfulness and attention to provision and stability that was embodied in the garden and in the canned goods.”
Today, she owns and works on Firefly Homestead Farm, one of several farms in Hopewell. Here, Lowinske Desmond grows food for her family — two kids who attend Hopewell Elementary School and her husband, a professor of sociology at Princeton. She owns chickens, cows, sheep, goats, and vegetables and plans to start a small fruit orchard on the land.
“Farming in Hopewell is totally a movement,” she said. “I think people want to know more about where their food comes from, and there’s definitely enough people involved to call it a movement.”
Down the road from Lowinske Desmond’s farm, Lucia Stout has been working on one of her own. Beechtree Farm prides itself on providing grass-fed meat to the Hopewell community and also sells sheepskins, honey, maple syrup, and art cards at its store and market.
Stout has preserved her land through the State Agriculture Development Committee’s Farmland Preservation Program, a project that provides financial and capital resources for landowners. The program also assists in the land preservation process so that farmers like Stout can ensure that their land will not be developed.
“I worked hard to make it happen,” she said. “Now, this farm will always be a farm.”
Stout is an active member of the farming community within Hopewell and the greater area. A board member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, commonly known as NOFA-NJ, Stout’s long-held passion for organic farming grew as she learned more about its benefits through local conferences and events.
“I went out to the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture Conference at Penn State. It was an eye-opening experience for me. There were a thousand people, all doing interesting, innovative, wonderful things with their small farms,” she said. “I got a fire in a belly about it.”
“You could say that I became an activist,” she added. “I try to do what I can to make a difference.”
Today, on her 58-acre farm, Stout sells grass-fed meat from her farm directly to the community. “Grass-fed makes a huge difference in quality and flavor,” she said. “People come from as far as two hours away to see us.” To purchase the meat, she recommends to call ahead of time and visit Beechtree’s farm store any day of the week or weekend.
In addition to her life as a farmer, Stout is a local artist, painting in oil, pastels, ink, and watercolor. Her husband, Charlie Huebner, is an artist as well and crafts well-known handmade soaps from their animals’ beef tallow. He also owns a local door and window contractor service. Their two children, Kate and Gus Huebner grew up in Hopewell and later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School and Virginia Tech, respectively.
Stephanie Harris, of Stonehedge Farm, is one of the founding members of NOFA-NJ. Harris believes that local and organic farming, in Hopewell and across the country, will continue to grow. “It’s all a very positive trend. I started farming in Hopewell in 1984. At the time, there were very few farmers here practicing organic farming,” she said. “There’s been a huge shift in public awareness.”
At Stonehedge, Harris owns chickens and grows organic fruits and vegetables. She also sells honey from her bees and blankets made from her sheep’s fleece. Her two children grew up in the area and graduated from Princeton Day School.
NOFA-NJ is the youngest and southernmost chapter of the overall organization. Initially, Harris explained, the chapter was “looked on by the farm establishment as a fringe organization.” Now, NOFA-NJ works alongside the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to back legislation that provides resources to local organic farmers.
Five miles away from Stout’s farm, Jon McConaughy has worked on Double Brook Farm for more than 10 years. Along with his farm, McConaughy owns a market and restaurant, essentially creating a full-circle circuit for production, processing, and distribution right in Hopewell.
Double Brook Farm houses a USDA approved slaughterhouse, allowing McConaughy to keep all aspects of the farm-to-table cycle local. The meat and vegetables served at his restaurant, Brick Farm Tavern, stay within his property throughout their processing and preparation.
“Part of my motivation was that I believe that our food system is broken and that the health of our environment and population is greatly affected by the industrial food system,” he said. “I also love the idea of being able to work in a job where, at the end of the day, you can see progress.”
It is evident that local food has revitalized Hopewell’s agricultural community. But, as Lowinske Desmond mentioned, “scratching the itch” isn’t a viable option for many.
Farming brings in small margins, and local farming brings in especially small ones. The average farmer, according to McConaughy, makes a meager fifteen cents for each retail dollar of produce or meat he sells.
“The problem for young farmers is that you’re getting into a business that you can’t make a lot of money in,” he said.
New Jersey’s high land values only make it harder for farmers. Government subsidies that are directed towards farming are generally allocated to large, industrial-scale farms rather than local farms. “The institutional deck is stacked against small farmers right now,” Lowinske Desmond said. “We need to start supporting early to mid-career farmers who have made it through some roadblocks.”
Organizations like NOFA-NJ, by providing educational resources and advice for local farmers, create a supportive community among those who brave the many obstacles that come with small-scale organic farming. However, these resources are not enough when it comes to ensuring that farming can guarantee a stable, substantial income.
Farmers across rural communities are unable to get on land and stay on land because farmland has been consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, Lowinske Desmond explained.
“It’s a sad story for most people, the loss of small farms,” she said. “The population in rural areas have decreased, schools have closed, main street shop doors are shuttered.”
“Folks who want to farm have to beat out some pretty big barriers,” she added.
For those who do make it past the initial hurdles of small-scale farming, difficulties still remain. Lowinske Desmond points to institutions that can be improved to help local farmers. “We have to figure out a way to match the will with social structures that will support the folks who want to work the land,” she said.
Hopewell’s success with local farming comes along with a national resurgence in local food. Organic food is the fastest growing sector of agriculture in America; in 2016, organic farming in New Jersey produced 8.8 million dollars in organic products according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The local farming and organic food movement has also received national media attention.
“Across the United States, there’s a much bigger awareness on where food comes from,” McConaughy said. “But Hopewell is ahead of the curve.”
He attributes Hopewell’s unique position to the community’s affluence and high education level. “We are a very interesting mix of farmland and fairly heavy population,” he said. “This allows experimentation to happen.”
“Local solves all the problems,” he added. “When local people are buying local food, you cut out the middleman. You can control both the production and the processing. Local achieves accountability, freshness, and a sense of community.”
Local pasture-based farming has positive impacts for the environment. Due to the economic efficiency of large-scale, industrial farming, few farmers with consolidated farmlands produce massive quantities of food. These methods pollute the environment — a high cost for efficiency’s sake.
“Industrial agriculture is one of the largest polluters in the US,” McConaughy added. “Pasture based regenerative agriculture solves the externality problem and, therefore, the pollution problem. But the question that often arises is whether pasture based farming can meet the demand for food.”
To ensure that the supply of food meets the demand in the United States, we would need ten million more farmers working on small farms, he explained.
“But in order to get ten million more farmers, we have to make farming a job that people can do, a job that pays people a living wage. That’s not a problem that we’ve solved yet,” Lowinske Desmond said.
Still, Lowinske Desmond is optimistic. “I don’t think the movement is going away — there’s a lot of energy and excitement around it and hopefully there will be some creative problem solving that can help to align government values with the kind of energy that we’re seeing,” she said.
At Beechtree Farms, Lucia Stout shares this optimism. She seeks to be an example for others interested in local farming. “It’s good for the environment and the community’s health,” she said.
“I love it when I can see animals grazing out in the field,” she added. “I call it Vitamin B, for beauty.”