Garden Diary - July 2014

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Wednesday, 30 July 2014
Farm to Store Tour

It's a Farm to Store tour, the first annual, arranged by ShopRite of Hunterdon County. What's this? Sign up in advance. Show up at 9:30 a.m. on the scheduled day, at either the Clinton or Flemington store depending on where you registered. Then get on a bus and visit several local farms from which ShopRite gets some of their local produce. So I signed up and was there in the parking lot, ready to board the big bus. I was hardly alone - all told the two buses had 100 enthusiastic participants. Very well organized - we were welcomed by several produce department managers and staff who accompanied us on the tour. Sun screen and bug spray provided, also coolers of water. A few welcoming remarks, into our seats, and we're off.

My bus started in Clinton. We went first to Piazza Farms in Lopatcong Township, where the Flemington bus also arrived shortly. From there we'd all go to Donaldson's farms in Hackettstown, where a buffet lunch would be provided. And our third visit would be to Melick's Orchards in Califon.

Fields of beautiful vegetables stretching off into the distance. Everything very well cared for.

Tomatoes , for example, impeccably staked.

Here's Sam, welcoming us. How, he wanted to know, had ShopRite arranged this perfect weather? When the tour was first discussed he was concerned that - end of July - the temperatures would be in the 90s Fahrenheit, with matching humidity. We'd get off the bus, he figured, then turn right around and get back into the air conditioning. Instead, low humidity, soft breezes, and temperatures in the low 70s later in the day rising to the low 80s. Ideal weather.

He gave us a brief history of Piazza Farms. A multi-generation business, they sell produce both wholesale and retail, at their on-site farm stand. They raise vegetable transplants for themselves, for other farmers, and to homeowners, to whom they also sell bedding plants. They test their soil once, sometimes twice each growing season. Fertilizers are adjusted as indicated from the test and for the crop being grown. Rather than spraying for insect pests automatically by the calendar they now sample check the crop and only spray when there is a need. Afterwards, another check to see if it needs to be repeated. He's happier, Sam said, since he's the one who usually does the spraying and the less he does the happier he is.

Why is ShopRite purchasing produce from local farmers? A few years ago they were promoting Jersey Fresh, vegetables and fruits grown here in the Garden State. Nowadays this isn't good enough. People want to buy local, want to know where their food comes from. ShopRite does better than just Jersey Fresh. They'll label a bin of zucchini with the name of the farm that grew it. Often, this local produce will be harvested early in the morning - work starts in the field at 5:30 a.m. at Piazza Farms. Produce will be delivered to the store within hours and available for purchase that same day. Compare that to the frequent flier miles racked up by California-grown or South American produce.

Let's go. Off into the fields.

A field of cabbages. Magnificent green cabbages. When harvested the coarse outer leaves will be trimmed before boxing and delivery to the stores. There's always some more trimming at the store. Once upon a time when I kept chickens, in winter I'd ask for these trimmings of lettuce and cabbage leaves. No more, not available. Why? Because Organix Recycling collects all the produce and bakery waste from ShopRite and turns it into animal feed pellets. It's a huge quantity kept out of the landfill - from the Clinton store alone, with a twice a week pickup - make a guess now . . . . they collect 4 tons per week.


Sam, clutching a freshly pulled kohlrabi. His problem is that these kohlrabi are too big, people don't want them (if they even want a kohlrabi.) Tour participants were more than happy to help. A number of us got back on the bus with a kohlrabi in our hands. When well grown, big does not mean tough. When this tender, they're lovely raw. I had some as a salad with dinner. Cut into sticks. Shave thin. Do the same with carrot. Toss with some arugula and baby spinach. Dress with balsamic vinegar and herb infused olive oil. Very nice.

Here are young cole crop transplants - broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage -
to grow the the last of summer and into the fall. They actually prefer cool weather.

Back onto the bus and on our way to Donaldson Farms. Wonderful background - 108 years in the family, three generations of which are currently working here. Huge operation, 1,200 acres with 130 acres of sweet corn, 650 acres of field corn (for animal feed), and altogether 350 acres of vegetables. Other than the biodegradable plastic and drip tape their 30 acres of tomatoes are cared for entirely by hand. The plants are staked, 45,000 stakes. The crews go into the fields every 2 weeks to tie the plants to the stakes as they grow, which means 4 to 5 times each growing season. The yield is 2,000 boxes per acre, 23 pound boxes. And that's just saleable product, not including undersized or damaged tomatoes.

Time for lunch, inside an open tent-style pavilion. Buffet style: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs. Excellent corn, fresh from the farm. (Later, before boarding the bus I bought 6 ears at their farm store.) Salad, from the farm. Water, sweet tea, lemonade. There was probably some dessert but I was pleasantly full and didn't look for any sweets. Brief speeches from some anticipated presenters: Doug Fisher, New Jersey secretary of agriculture; a Colalillo, whose family owns these two ShopRite stores (plus one in Phillipsburg and two more that will soon open in Pennsylvania); the stores' produce manager; one of the farm family.

I don't have any pictures to share with you. The growing fields and orchards are so vast that we were toured around as passengers, on hay wagons pulled by tractors, with bales of straw and hay to sit on. Every time I'd see something to photograph the bouncy ride would throw the focus off.

Now onward to our third farm of the day - Melick's Town Farm orchard in Califon. Thought clearly went into today's event. First we visited two produce farms and now, for something just a little different, we'll visit an orchard.

Two generations of Melicks meet our buses and walk us off into the orchards. Their apples are trained in the new style that I recently saw at the Snyder Research Farm. The farm does have a pick your own program, as well as a small store selling already picked for you fruit. And, of course, the fruit and cider that is sold by ShopRite. Their cider is excellent, it's the one I always buy.

Beautiful peaches. The trees will be productive, bearing well, for approximately 25 years. Apples, on the other hand, can keep going for a century or even longer. No one around here grows apricots, as all too often spring frosts damage the blossoms before the fruit is set. Frost is a major issue. The Melicks have an odd looking windmill to stir the air when frost might be an early morning issue. This year they even had to have a couple of helicopter come to hover over the apple trees, twice.

The older trees were ripening their fruit, and we were welcome to pick.

And not just pick, but enjoy.

A long and enjoyable day. The first annual Farm to Store tour was clearly a success.

They might need even more buses, next year.

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