At the final outdoor Princeton Farmers Market of 2019, Darci Burns sported the puffy paraphernalia of winter: a pair of grey North Face earmuffs and a thick sweater beneath brown overalls, the blue of her eyes sharp in contrast to the colors of her clothing.
The 26-year-old had been selling vegetables for Chickadee Creek Farm for several years, and has grown accustomed to watching the market regulars of Princeton pick their produce—yet she also has noticed that they have less choice lately. The market has gotten smaller over time.
“What I’ve noticed is that people”—as in the farmers—“have a lot less stuff,” she said. With not enough produce to justify the costs of setting up a stall, sellers who had come from all over the state had begun dropping out.
It had to do with the weather. This past winter, Princeton residents noticed a lack of snow, but farmers have noticed broader changes in precipitation for a while. Since the mid-1990s, the Northeast has been getting wetter and wetter, with heavy rains splashing farms with quantities of water previously unseen. The 2018 season saw over 60 inches of rain on par with some regions of Costa Rica, where lush and humid jungles—a far cry from the dry woods of New Jersey—are the norm. Farmers can’t get out onto drenched fields to work, waterlogged earth has led to disease, soil has eroded, populations of pests have exploded, and plants haven’t been given the right conditions to grow.
Yet Burns, who has been with Chickadee Creek Farm for four years, continues to appear at the Princeton Farmers Market, where her mixed greens and vegetables are beloved staples. Halfway through our conversation, a man peeked into Burns’s white-tented stand to survey the goods.
“Did I miss ginger season?” he asked, a hint of hope in his voice.
“Yeah, we only had ginger for one week,” she replied.
“Ah! No problem,” the man said. “Next year then.”
Princeton’s beloved farmers market planned to return to Hinds Plaza this spring—but with the understanding it very well could be smaller than its predecessors. It has nothing to do with novel coronavirus. Instead, the new decade—coming on the heels of increasingly errant weather events—already seems like alien territory to many farmers who have relied on careful planning to feed the residents of the Garden State. More than a hundred crops are grown each year on a sixth of the state’s land.
For these farmers, 2020 had the potential to be a defining year. Six of New Jersey’s 10 warmest summers on record have occurred since 2005, and the statewide average temperature in 2012 was the highest in 118 years of record-keeping. Since then, warmer and wetter conditions have led to extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, which, in 2012, ripped through the state and left devastation in her wake.
The weather has always been tricky. Now, it’s a dance with fate.
Somewhere on Facebook, there is a picture of my freshman self in a candy shop, holding up a chocolate bar with a wrapper that reads, in an obnoxious cursive font, ‘Jersey Girl.’ I look overjoyed, eyes crinkled and cheeks bulging, caught in the ecstatic and exciting realization that I—a South Korea native who travelled 7,000 miles to New Jersey for school—was making this place a new home.
As a native of Seoul and a long-time resident of Hong Kong, I’ve always been a city girl born-and-bred. I’d never been to Princeton before I applied to college, and thus relied on my imaginations of New Jersey to fill in the blanks. I admit that New Jersey, unlike states like New York or California, doesn’t have the sexiest reputation; I’ve heard some of my local friends, for instance, dub it “the armpit of the nation.”
But over the years, I’ve grown to love New Jersey as home. From the rolling greens of Princeton to the monochrome buildings of Newark, each place I’ve encountered in my adopted state—full of its eccentricities and contradictions—has irreversibly embedded itself into who I am. Like New Jersey, I am a motley mix of factors that seem incongruous when put together: a Spanish & Portuguese major from Korea who grew up in a city but loves to farm. To be called a “Jersey Girl” feels like a badge of honor I’m earning as I learn the difference between a pork roll and a Taylor ham, unwittingly become a Wawa devotee, and defend the fact that yes, Central Jersey does exist; I live in it, and it is exceedingly beautiful, its produce—apples and lettuce greens and strawberries—even more delicious.
So it saddens me to think that what I’ve grown to love might one day be completely different.
At 260 Wargo Road in Pennington sits Honey Brook Organic Farm, where farmers Sherry Dudas and Jim Kinsel have led the organic farm movement in the Garden State for decades. They have been growing, among many things, the same variety of strawberries for 20 years. Strawberry season used to begin during Memorial Day weekend, in late May. Now, it starts on Mother’s Day, two weeks earlier. Although nature’s altered timeline has been befitting for the fruit—strawberries, red, round and heart-shaped, are a perfect addition to Mother’s Day festivities—it is also somewhat troubling.
They arrive earlier because the weather is warming. But earlier doesn’t mean better. During wet springs, ripened berries can lie in puddles of water, some overwhelmed by fungal diseases that thrive in warm and wet conditions.
Dudas, who is 55 years old, grew up in Monroe Township, the oldest daughter of a union construction worker and a secretary for whom mushroom foraging trips and buying from local farmers was the way things were. When the woodlot near her home became a convenience store, “that just rocked my world,” Dudas said. She decided, then, to spend the rest of her life as an advocate for the land, first working at several land conservancies before ending up at Honey Brook in the nineties.
Back then, the farm was run by Jim Kinsel, who had studied math at Rutgers and worked for Prudential—a job he found “deadening,” Dudas said—before he started farming. They married in 2007.
When Dudas arrived at the farm in 1998, the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program (or CSA for short) had been ongoing for seven years, providing weekly supplies of produce to members who paid an annual fee to participate. At the CSA’s peak in 2016, Dudas surmised that it was the largest in the nation: Honey Brook’s fruits and vegetables, packed tightly in boxes of various sizes, would make their rounds to neighboring communities and feed around 5,500 people each week.
I visited her farm last November. As we walked on a deserted road, surrounded by the smell of compost, she told me, much like Burns did at the farmers market, about the weather. In 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, the farm lost all electric service; two downed trees blocked staff and refrigerator trucks from delivering the produce, and it perished. March of 2010, August of 2011, June of 2013, and the entirety of 2018 were the wettest on record, each setback delaying the growing season: tractors couldn’t work in wet fields, and root rot—a disease that withers healthy roots, leaving them dried and dull—became an unwanted visitor on the farm. Disappointed by the reduced or inconsistent contents of their CSA shares, many members chose to leave without fully understanding why things weren’t the same.
Eventually, too many of them left. Having lost around 500 members each year since 2016, Dudas told me, 2019 was the first in which the CSA didn’t turn a profit.
“Jim and I have started using our inheritances from when our parents have passed, and this is the first year we had to get a farm loan,” she said, matter-of-factly.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic, however, has caused an uptick in CSA memberships as grocery stores run out of staple items or residents wish to forego the supermarket for their own health and safety. Honey Brook’s CSA membership numbers have increased from the same period this time last year, with 90 percent of recent membership purchases being for home delivered customized boxes, an option that Dudas and Kinsel have recently created.
“I believe we will sell out of shares this year and have to waitlist interested customers, something we haven’t had to do since 2012,” Dudas said in an email.
Although the pandemic has reversed the trend of falling CSA memberships at Honey Brook Organic Farm, it has done little to combat climate change itself—which continues to impact work on the farm.
It has been unseasonably warm in New Jersey this spring, after one of the warmest winters in recorded history. Flea beetles—which would have died off had the winter been cold enough—have begun ravaging Honey Brook’s arugula, bok choi and other early plantings, leading to frustrating crop failures.
“The effects of climate change on this farm have really no hope of going away without a meaningful global response to climate change,” Dudas said.
Back in November, Dudas considered her greatest fear if climate change continued at its current rate.
“That we’re going to wind up homeless,” she said then. “That we’ll be going to the food banks that we now donate to.”
As one year slowly transitioned into the next, she and her husband would imagine—both in jest and in sincerity—what that might look like: Kinsel, a fan of expensive granolas, dumpster diving at Whole Foods; selling the farm and seeing it turn into something else, which would be “heartbreaking” for Dudas.
As we stopped at the compost pile, Dudas told me about what she and her husband were doing to continue with their labor of love. One solution lies in the long half-cylinders planted squarely in the field, called high tunnels, that protect produce from adverse weather. Being anywhere from 15 to 30 feet wide, 9 to 15 feet high and up to 200 feet in length, each high tunnel can cost $20,000 to install. Another solution is the use of cover crops: non-harvestable plants that are grown on top of existing beds during the winter to keep the soil healthy, preventing rain from stripping off the nutrients.
But whether these solutions will stand the tricky test of weather is not entirely clear.
“For those of you that have supported us through the droughts, hail storms, hurricanes, and at least one superstorm, we thank you and want you to know that your support has made our farm dream a reality,” they wrote in their September 2019 newsletter. “Producing the food that helps you and your family maintain health, vitality and happiness is a great responsibility, one that we and our staff have never undertaken lightly.”
Leaving Dudas that November afternoon, the sun setting across the empty road, the Jersey Girl within me—having been fed on the state’s juicy tomatoes, apples, blueberries for three years and taken it for granted—was at a loss for words.
When Dudas looks for expertise, she turns towards people like Virginia Lamb, a soil health specialist and long-time friend, as well as Dr. Marjorie Kaplan of the Rutgers Climate Initiative, who conducts research on the causes and impacts of climate change and relays this information to local farmers.
Home-grown research is increasingly important especially as the government’s approach falls short. In 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture established ten regional Climate Hubs across the nation to link USDA research with nationwide efforts to increase climate resiliency on farms. The Climate Hub closest to New Jersey is in Durham, New Hampshire, over 300 miles away from Princeton.
Daunting, too, is the fact that the official USDA Twitter account hasn’t mentioned the word “climate” since 2017, and that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue denied global warming just last June. His argument? “It rained yesterday, it’s a pretty nice day today. So the climate does change in short increments and in long increments.”
Yet the urgency is real. Across the globe, the chaotic effects of climate change—droughts, heavy rains, extremely hot or cold temperatures—are wreaking havoc on all sorts of farms, making it harder for people to put food on their tables. In 2018, just over 11% of households in the United States did not have secure food supplies at home; and as the world population grows—the United Nations predicts that it will increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050—food insecurity will only become a graver and graver concern.
But already, in 2020, there is a lot at stake—including the mental health of farmers who are struggling to cope. It is a somber reality that the rate of suicide has risen among farmers over the last few years.
These farmers are people who, like us, have aspirations, origins and love for food and the land. With families, passions, joys and sorrows that drive them to do their work, day after day, brave even in the face of uncertainty.
It is easy to romanticize the land and the stories we tell about it. Poets and artists have projected themselves onto pastoral panoramas for generations. For me, a city girl, the land is most vibrant in my imagination: with its distance from the frenetic pace of city life, it offers me a chance to reconnect with a nebulous feeling of rootedness to this thing—the earth—that we come from, and call our home.
Twenty miles away from Sherry’s farm, in Hightstown, is Abe’s Acres Farm, owned by 28-year-old Gabe Siciliano. Before I met him, I first met his girlfriend, Tara Kennette, an English PhD student at Temple University. When she told me that she received free vegetables all summer by virtue of dating a farmer, I blurted out, somewhat embarrassingly: “Maybe I should find a farmer boyfriend too.”
Siciliano’s great-grandfather, Abraham Feldsher, escaped the pogroms of 1800s Russia to the United States, where he started a dry goods store in Brooklyn before pursuing his dream of farming his own land. The dream brought him to Hightstown, where Abe’s Acres sits today, growing more than forty kinds of crops. For Siciliano, the land is also his connection to his grandfather, Joseph Notterman, who kept the farm for decades until he passed away in 2013.
Notterman’s death “was the first real loss I’d ever experienced,” Siciliano told me. “And that precipitated me re-evaluating what I really wanted out of my life.”
On the Abe’s Acres website are side-by-side images of Notterman and Siciliano standing in the same spot on the farm, 35 years apart. Both men are grabbing the front clasps of their overalls, wide-brimmed hats perched atop their heads; they share the same, subtle smile, albeit one in color and the other in a grainy black-and-white. Both men combine intellectualism with the labor of farming: while Siciliano studied neuroscience at Brandeis University and once dreamed of going into medicine, Notterman taught psychology at Princeton University for 35 years, spending his winters in the classroom and summers on the farm.
Despite their similarities, however, there is one inconvenient discrepancy: the conditions Gabe faces today vary tremendously from what his grandfather used to encounter on the same farm.
“You used to be able to rely on weather patterns to be within a certain margin of error depending on where you were,” Siciliano said, “but in the last 10 years, or even in the last five years, weather patterns have changed so quickly that it’s very, very difficult to do that anymore.”
“God, last year sucked,” he said. “Not just for me, but for everyone in Jersey.” Many of the direct-seeded crops that he would have planted sometime in April—like cut greens, carrots and beets—had to wait until late May or early June, because the soil was too wet. That year, Siciliano lost up to 30% of what he would’ve earned from cut greens, one of his most lucrative crops.
For Siciliano, the land is not just a romantic ideal. It is his history and his family story, which makes it all the more unnerving when that lineage is at risk of being disrupted.
“It’s frustrating, honestly, to come into something that you find is your life’s passion and know that it’s going to change a lot in your lifetime,” Siciliano said. He sighed. “And that you’re never going to be able to keep up with it. That it’ll ultimately be a futile endeavor.”
For people like Sherry Dudas and Gabe Siciliano, whose life’s work and joy stems from food and the land, it is the sense of community among farmers that makes the profession worthwhile despite the unnerving uncertainty.
Max Hoagland, the market manager of the Princeton Farmers Market (and Darci Burns’s old high school classmate), will admit that much. Vendors have to be aware of what others are doing or selling so as not to create unfair competition, he said. Vendors crack jokes with one another and share some of the leftovers they had once the market closes, and Hoagland emphasized that the market only functions when people cooperate and work together. Across Hoagland’s fingers, there eight tattoos—one on each finger, save for the thumbs—that combine to read SINK and SWIM on either hand.
It felt like an omen.
It caused me to recall my conversation with Dudas as we walked the long road by her farm.
“This is a do-or-die year,” she had told me. In the absence of passing cars, the vicinity was totally silent. She was talking about her farm, but she could have been talking about us all.