PLUMSTED – A drive through the western parts of Ocean County presents a landscape far different from sandy beaches or dense pine forests. Instead, acres and acres of sprawling farmland offer a taste of what makes New Jersey the Garden State.
Much of the scenic scene comes with a promise under the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust program. Twenty-five years ago, voters approved a 1.2 cent levy that provides funds for the acquisition of land in Ocean County for conservation and farmland preservation purposes.
“People need to know that when we buy this land, it will still be preserved,” Commissioner Virginia “Ginny” Haines said. “It can never be developed for any other purpose.”
The concept of living off the land means different things to the 58 farms that are being preserved under the program. For some, growing and selling food crops is the mainstay of their livelihood. Ornamental Plant Growers and Legendary Horse Stables are also on the Ocean County Preserved Farms list.
Plumsted’s dominance in the preservation program earned it the distinction of Ocean County Farm Belt. Officials say the coastal split makes all the difference in the quality of the soil from sand or marsh.
Last week, county officials invited the media to join a tour of some of Plumsted’s conservation farmland. Mayor Robert Bowen also came for the visit.
Hallock’s U-Pick Farm was the first to become part of the Farmland Preservation Program back in 1991. Located at 38 Fischer Road in New Egypt, the farm comprises a total of 269 acres. Those who want a fresh vegetable picking experience will need to bring their own knives.
The fields are open daily, although the owners suggest pickers call ahead if they are looking for a particular crop. Just because a fruit or vegetable is available at the supermarket doesn’t mean it’s in season locally. An on-site retail store offers a wide selection of pre-picked delicacies.
Hallock Farm has been around for generations and is well invested in the preservation program. Doug Hallock is chairman of the Ocean County Agricultural Development Board. His daughter continues to run the farm – the only business she has ever known.
According to Mark AC Villinger, a supervising planner with the Ocean County Planning Department, one of the largest farms purchased under the program was the Grant Farm, which originally consisted of 282 acres.
“We purchased the Grant farm in 2012 directly from the owner and the county took ownership of the farm,” Villinger explained. “We kept it with the state.”
Krowicki Farmers Market, located at 862 Route 539 in New Egypt, has 28.76 acres of farmland. Dennis Krowicki provided a tour of nearby fields which began with rows of different melons, including crenshaws and honeydews. An apple orchard separated from regular crops promises honey crisps as a favorite variety.
“Everything you see growing here is done without any chemical fertilizers,” Krowicki pointed out. “There is no reason to use them.”
Pointing to a large dark pile in the far field, Krowicki said he was using a Zoo Doo he got from Six Flags. The compost mix probably consists of different animal manures collected from animals in the amusement park safari exhibits.
Krowicki’s fields contain a variety of fruits and vegetables that will be picked and sold at the farm market. However, there is another distinction to this particular farm.
Far from the cultures, the horse courses attract avid riders from afar. Krowicki said the farm also hosts horse riding shows.
Emery’s Farm, located at 346 Long Swamp Road in New Egypt, became part of the Farm Preservation Program in 2001. The 60-acre property includes 20 acres of blueberries alone. Visitors can pick blueberries or sunflowers depending on the time of year. The aroma of fresh baked goods hits the senses before the door to Emery’s Farm Country Bakery opens.
“The bakery is the largest in Ocean County,” Bowen said. “People come from all over to buy baked goods here.”
John Marchese, the owner of Emery’s Farm, said he has worked in the agriculture industry for 22 years. Lack of precipitation has been one of the challenges this year, along with a low volume of blueberries in the industry. And, like everything else, rising costs and supply chain issues have added expense.
At one time, Emery’s Farm featured a ten-acre corn maze. However, with inflation, Marchese decided that the $5 admission fee might be overkill for some families. He decided to shorten the corn maze and do something else.
“Open ground is now sprouting for a five-acre field of sunflowers,” Marchese said. “We’re changing it because millennials with their phones will want to take photos for five bucks each.”
Marchese pointed to another area of the farm where four varieties of pumpkins are planted. He said the drought also poses a dilemma for pumpkins, which could potentially become a difficult crop without water.
“We plan to sell the farm within the next two years,” Marchese said. “We already have three or four serious people who want to buy it.”
While most appreciate the concept of supporting local businesses, many don’t realize this could still be the case when buying flowers from big box stores.
MidAtlantic Growers, located at 6 Meadowbrook Lane in New Egypt, joined the preservation program in 2002. The 32.8-acre farm sells ornamental plants wholesale, usually within a 25-mile radius.
Owner Ron Harrison said he has been in the farming business for many years. He is very proud of his operation, as well as the people who work for him.
Before showing a field containing 60,000 mums, Harrison showed a small cutting to show how they start. Mist plays an important role in watering plants.
“All of a sudden they start to take root,” Harrison explained. “We then plant them.”
Hot houses with temperatures around 120 degrees currently contain colorful zinnias, ready to be shipped to stores for sale.
Like Marchese, Harrison noted that rising costs have impacted his business. He admits that some of them just don’t make sense to him, taking the rising prices of plastic products as an example.
When Harrison first opened the farm, he had ten small greenhouses and his electric bill was over $1,000 a month. Now MidAtlantic has 75 greenhouses and the bill is down to $600.
“It’s because of the rollups I use and solar power,” Harrison said.
Four different farms – four different approaches to using their land. Four different properties preserved forever as agricultural land.