One of the joys of writing about food in New Jersey is the people I meet who are bringing new meaning to farming and food production in the Garden State.
When you picture your typical farmer, what do you imagine? I’m guessing a weather-worn cowboy type, riding high on a tractor, maybe even wearing the obligatory cowboy hat, straw in his teeth. I’m going to bet that you would not envision a bearded, 28-year-old in waders and wayfarers, hoisting oyster cages on a refurbished pontoon boat with a temperamental engine. Am I right?
A CHANGE OF PACE
Meet Matt Gregg, an-online-band-booker-for-William-Morris-turned-oyster-farmer on Barnegat Bay. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine and Coastal Law / Aquaculture and Fisheries Science, Matt and his partners Scott Lennox and Justin Sokol spent two years working through the required paperwork and state approvals to establish New Jersey’s first east coast oyster farm.
On a gorgeous October afternoon, Gregg took me for a ride (once he got the engine going) so I could see for myself what an oyster farm actually looks like. While we made our way from the marina to the ten acres of water called Forty North Oyster Farms, I had a million questions for the young, former NYC commuter.
Why? Why aquaculture? How does one get into this field?
“One of my first jobs was working in a fish market,” Gregg said. “After a few summers doing that, I started working on fishing boats. I can’t stand being away from the water and was always fascinated with the food sector of the industry. I decided to attend the University of Rhode Island to study Aquaculture and Fisheries Science. I had no real interest in aquaculture but I was required to take a class in my first semester and surprisingly I loved it. When conducting a lab, we visited a nearby oyster farm and I asked the owner of the farm that day if I could work for him during the summer and he agreed. From that point I knew I wanted to have my own farm someday.”
It was fascinating to listen to Gregg. He knows so much about the bay and about the environment and loves to share his knowledge. He hopes to host class trips to the farm in the next year or so. I know I came away a lot more aware about the environment benefits of Oyster farms.
“Thanks to big fish farms, aquaculture has gotten a bad reputation,” Gregg explained. “What people should know is that an oyster farm is far different than, let’s say, a salmon or tilapia farm. Fish farms require taking something out of the environment to feed their animals. In contrast, there is no input required to feed our animals. The oysters eat algae which naturally exist, in abundance. The oysters remove excess nutrients from the water, improving water quality and increasing dissolved oxygen levels. In the northeast, oysters are meant to be a part of our estuaries. Depletion of wild oysters, as a result of over harvesting, has really hurt our waterways. The more oyster farms we have, the healthier and cleaner our water will be.”
Forty North gets its oyster seed from the Rutgers Hatchery in Bivalve, NJ. Through selective breeding, they have oysters that grow faster and are less susceptible to mortality. The oysters take about a year to mature so Gregg and his partners have just started selling their oysters to local restaurants and at food festivals.
As a state, our aquaculture industry is way behind New York, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, Rhode Island and Massachusetts—all of them have much larger shellfish aquaculture industries. “The Bayman is almost extinct in this state,” Gregg noted, “But we have the infrastructure to bring it back. I’d love to see more adventurous youth ditching the desk job and finding ways to improve this planet while making a living.”
A FRESH START
From tranquil bay breezes to busy city streets, our next farm calls the James Street Commons Historic District in Newark its home, and 38-year-old Economics Professor at Essex County College, Derek Ware, their resident farmer. Ware found himself in this odd situation after responding to a local reporter who was doing a story on “food deserts,” within which Newark was to be mentioned. He said, “It only brought to light the liability but didn’t address solutions to the problem. So I thought I should approach the solution.”
Ware started a farmer’s market at the historic park, then introduced cooking presentations to teach residents how to cook healthy foods from the farm. After that, he began looking for under-utilized locations that were eye sores in the community, converting them into community gardens. The Commons Community Garden is strictly vegetable produce and the Baxter Senior Garden has both produce and flowers.
The fruits—or vegetables—of their labors are given to residents and made into preserves for the winter months. To date, Ware and his volunteers have made basil pesto, tomato sauces, pepper sauce, pickles (peppers, cabbage, onions, cauliflower and cucumbers).
“We hope to improve production over the next few years,” Ware added. “Increasing community involvement, specifically getting the youth more involved into growing food, is our goal.”
One thing you won’t find at Ware’s location is livestock. For that, we need to travel to Lawrenceville and onto the beautiful grounds of Cherry Grove Farm.
THE BIG CHEESE
Sam Kennedy, a 28-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate, said he was in the right place at the right time when he landed an apprentice position as cheese maker under Kelly Harding at Cherry Grove Farm.
“When I was a chef, I studied Molecular Gastronomy intensively while dabbling in the Modernist Cuisine style,” he explained. “This was driving me to become a research and development chef. Cheese making was just the natural extension of these two culinary styles.”
Cherry Grove Farm is a 400-acre farm with 230 of those acres being certified organic pastures. The farm manager, Kelly Harding, started what we know as Cherry Grove Farm today with free-range chicken eggs and building up to grass-fed lamb, whey-fed pork, and grass-based dairy. Six years ago it became a farmstead cheese facility, raising Jersey, shorthorns, Dutch Belted, and Holstein cattle. All the cows eat what the land has to provide, typically spending 22 hours of each day outside. (They come in twice a day to be milked.)
All of Cherry Grove Farm’s cheeses start out as liquid raw milk. The milk comes from grass-fed cows that live outdoors, which makes their cheeses healthier with a beautiful golden hue. The color comes from the beta-carotene found in the grasses the cows consume. This lends to the complex flavors they are able to achieve. Their rinds are all natural and edible with most created by molds that are indigenous to the farm. “When you take all these great factors we have in place (the grass, cows, and cheese) you can really get the true tastes of our area in New Jersey.” Kennedy said.
According to Kennedy, there is a cheese-making movement happening in our country and New Jersey is taking part. “Our country is just in the beginning phases of becoming a large trend and movement. It’s in the same spot as wine in the 1970s or craft beer 10 years ago. It’s really an exciting movement to watch and be part of because of its rate of growth and the interest that it has received.”
Forty North Oyster Farm
For more pictures from our visit see our Facebook Album.
Commons Community Garden
To volunteer: visit their website: www.commonscommunity.org,
Or call Derek Ware at 973-819-5025.
Cherry Grove Farm
Deborah Smith is the Founder and Executive Editor of JerseyBites.com, a collaborative online publication dedicated to food news and restaurant reviews in New Jersey. Launched in 2007 as a home for her growing collection of recipes, Jersey Bites soon grew into a hub for all things edible in the Garden State. In her spare time (ha!) she works as a Social Media consultant and speaker. You can learn more about her services and marketing through social media on her blog www.DeborahLSmith.com
Throughout the month of October, the Dodge blog is featuring blog posts related to food issues and food systems in honor of Food Day 2012. For a complete archive of our food related articles, please click here.