From Gardener to Organic Grower, New Jersey Farmer Finds Sustainability in Embracing the Local Community
January 8, 2013 | Hana Lurie
Al Esposito of Poplar Wood Farm does it all: from growing and selling organic produce and cut flowers to garden landscaping, as well as raising free-range chickens and goats. As if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, Al is currently the President of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, leading the non-profit organization with a goal to make healthy food an abundant possibility.
I recently spoke with Al to learn more about what inspired him to become a farmer, his involvement in NOFA and the future goals of his farm.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
A: Esposito: Twenty years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker magazine about community supported agriculture (CSA). I was living in a suburban area where I was running my flower shop, we had a toddler, and it was around the time of the Alar apple scare which awakened everyone to the fact that there were pesticide residues on food. We started looking at what we were eating pretty intensely.
I had no experience in farming, though I’ve always gardened throughout my whole life. My mother immigrated with my grandparents from Italy, and they had farmed back in Italy. When they moved here, they became Americanized, and instead of farming they simply had large gardens. So we started a search for land and found some an hour outside of the town that we lived in.
We leased and fenced a 5 acre area, and commuted back and forth with a group of 3 to 4 other people. After a couple of years, I wasn’t making enough money, so I stopped the farming and began to work at a bunch of other horticulture venues. I worked at a garden center, in a conventional farm, and a large grower that grew all different transplants. I honed my skills as far as operating equipment and growing in a greenhouse. About 15 years ago, I started landscaping, and I still do some landscape work. Everything was done organically, and that was a personal choice. Four or five years ago we began growing vegetables again, started our CSA and began attending two local markets.
Q: How did you find the money to lease/buy the land that you’re farming on?
A: Esposito: We live in a rural community and we’re able to use our land agriculturally, but it’s been something that we’ve reinvested in. Basically, I farm a leased land and we have just under 6 separate acres that we live on. The land that we live on is where we have our greenhouses that we grow our transplants. We were fortunate in that we were able to get NRCS grants, enabling us to put up deer fencing on our 10 acres of land. Unfortunately, this program got shut down.
We just completed our 2,000 square foot high tunnel that was also a co-share through NRCS. Unfortunately, a lot of that money has been taken off of the table. With this whole fiscal cliff bargaining going on, they extended the farm bill for one year, but they also took out all of the funding from the farm bill. I would venture to say that it’s being directed by large corporate agriculture again. As much as organics is a growth industry, I think the large players want to keep the industry to themselves. Right now all of the subsidies are slanted to favor larger farms.
Q: How does your farm make money?
A: Esposito: We do a CSA and markets – two local markets, and two markets about an hour away. The markets are actually the main source of income right now, but we’re bringing CSA sign up sheets to the market. We’re looking to have between 50-75 shares a year; we’re not a large CSA by any means. I’d eventually like 50% of our sales to be local, within 15 to 20 minutes of the farm.
Q: Do you consider the farm profitable, or self-sustaining?
A: Esposito: At this point we’re sustaining, and we’re right on the edge of becoming profitable. I would say that at the end of 2013, we should see a profit.
Q: What do you grow and raise on your farm?
A: Esposito: As far as vegetables, we’ve got the traditional load – peppers, eggplants, lots of tomatoes, baby greens are very popular, winter and summer squashes, broccoli, cucumber. I’ve got a small herd of goats that are more of a hobby and a passion. This is the first seasons that they’ll be kidding, and then we’ll have milk. I don’t see that becoming a commercial part of the business just yet. We’re bringing in two flocks of chickens, and we’ll pasture them free range on two acres of land. The eggs will be a large part of what we bring to the market.
Q: What are some unique, sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
A: Esposito: Everything that we do is pretty traditional; we compost and reuse all of our animal manure and plant material waste. We cover crop and do dual rotation, and I try to keep our inputs low. This year we just started with AgSquared – it’s a planting software that will allow you to plant row crops and rotations. We’re also getting a cultivating tractor for help with weed suppression without using herbicides.
Q: What are some challenges that your farm faces?
Esposito: Labor is somewhat of a challenge. This year we’re actually reaching out to a lot of different university web postings for apprentices. It gives you a pool of people that are truly interested in what you’re doing, and that makes a huge difference because they want to stay involved. They are dedicated and immersed in receiving knowledge, so I’m excited about that. The marketing is difficult – when you’re going to a farmer’s market, you have to be really organized and have all the tasks at the farm happening at the same time. Also, everything is weather contingent: markets and growing. The weather has been fine so far this year, but a lot of New Jersey took the brunt of last year’s hurricane.
Q: How did you become involved with NOFA New Jersey?
A: Esposito: Within a few years of farming, I became involved with NOFA New Jersey which is Northeast Organic Farming Association, and that’s how I started to get more information. Eventually I got a board position on NOFA New Jersey, and a couple of years ago I was elected Vice President. The president resigned, making me the current president of NOFA New Jersey.
We’ve just started a farm incubator – we received a three year USDA beginning farmer/rancher grant for it. This is a project that has been on the table and in the planning stages for quite some time, and to see it come to fruition while I’m involved is something I’m really proud of. We have our first beginning farmers working the land this coming spring. All over the country, recruiting new farmers to get involved in this profession is an issue because it’s so controversial, whether it’s about GMOs or the validity of the word organic. The validity is being contested as we start to see more corporate players becoming certified and trying to lobby for weakening the organic standard. The weaker the standards gets, the less credible organic gets. It’s important to have grassroots organizations of smaller farmers – one [well-informed] organization that I follow is Cornucopia Institute.
Q: What are the future goals for your farm?
Esposito: My goal is to have a farm that becomes a part of the community. I would love to see our farm become an open source of interaction with the people that are receiving food from us. We’ve got a fall and spring open house planned, and if CSA members want to volunteer, they’re welcome to come out into the field. I think those interactions are most important to me. I want people involved in knowing how their food is grown and to have the ability to come out and see it – something we’ve lost over the past 50 years. It’s important to me to see people reconnect with their food sources.