Former Duke Estate offering land to help farmers get into the business

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

In the past 15 years, there has been an explosive interest in locally grown food. Farmers markets set up their white tents in towns across the Garden State, offering everything from farm fresh organic greens to handcrafted raw milk cheeses and free-range chickens. CSAs — community supported agriculture – are another option, offering farm shares to customers who receive a bounty of produce that can either be picked in the field or delivered as a “boxed share” to a central drop-off location.

For those who want to dig their hands into the soil but don’t have the space or the sun, community gardens offer fertile plots in Princeton, Lawrenceville, West Windsor, Plainsboro and other towns.

Farm fresh veggies are not just for wealthy suburbanites — Isles in Trenton has been turning abandoned lots to community gardens for more than 20 years. Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick offers A Better World Café using farm fresh seasonal ingredients; its Shiloh Community Garden is where residents can grow their own food; and a CSA is available to all income levels.

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Even kids are raising their own veggies as more and more elementary schools are turning part of the playground into school gardens, teaching kids that their food comes from the earth – with math, science and writing thrown in. Parents are finding that when kids grow it, they eat it.

All this interest in locally grown organic food creates demand, and as farm markets and CSAs proliferate, there aren’t enough kale and collards fields to keep up. To help new farmers get started, the Northeast Organic Farming Association received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, an agency of the USDA, to establish incubator farms.

There are about 50 incubator farms throughout the U.S., mostly in California and Vermont. The incubator farm at Duke Farms is the first in New Jersey. These provide a safe environment for farmers to test their business plan, said Justine Cook, organic farming and conservation technical specialist for NOFA-NJ.

Incubator farms

Duke Farms in Hillsborough – whose mission is teaching good stewardship of the earth, and where NOFA-NJ rents office space — has provided 100 acres for the program, of which 11 are actively farmed. “Start up costs are the biggest barriers to new farms, so we have established an infrastructure,” said Cook. There are 60 acres of deer fencing and a well for irrigation. Barns can house farmer-owned tools and tractors. There is a shared walk-behind tiller, and Duke Farms provides the primary tillage.

“A smaller farmer won’t have to purchase a tractor, and can hand-cultivate for weed management,” says Cook. Each plot is suitable for different types of production.

Farmers pay an annual program fee to access the barn and farm stand, as well as office space. There is a per acreage rental rate, depending on whether the farmer wants irrigation and fencing.

As part of the program, farmers receive training in conservation issues and receive help applying for loans. Incubator farmers receive mentoring from established organic farmers, including Jim Kinsell of Honeybrook Farm in Hopewell and John Lima of Lima Family Farms in Hillsborough.

In order to be eligible for the program, farmers must have two years experience working on a farm and understand cropping cycles. The three farms participating this year are Dogwood Farms, Hummingbird Farms and Fertile Crescent Farms.

Dogwood is the largest of the three, cultivating pigs, sheep and diversified vegetables, and has sold out its CSA. Fertile Crescent and Hummingbird grow diverse vegetables and will be adding chickens. All three farms extend their season with hoop houses.

Cook expects Fertile Crescent and Hummingbird to double in size next year.

The farmers sell their produce at farmers markets open to the public at Duke Farms on the weekends. The Farm Barn Café at Duke Farms Orientation Center uses local produce when available, and Cook expects the production of the incubator farms to be significant enough to supply the café next year.

Admission to Duke Farms, which received a $45 million facelift last year, is free. There are 18 miles of walking trails, 12 miles of bike trails, and a tram with stops at the Old Foundation, Orchid Range and Great Meadow. Duke Farms offers four miles of paved paths that are wheelchair accessible and stroller-friendly.

The property – three times the size of New York’s Central Park — was created by James Buchanan Duke and preserved by his daughter, Doris Duke. The park-like grounds includes 700 acres of waterfalls, lakes, statues, winding roads, wildlife habitats and farmland, including a community garden.

NOFA-NJ will be holding a Summer Solstice Celebration at the Incubator Barn at Duke Farms June 21. The celebration includes an incubator farm tour at 4:30 p.m., a bring-your-own picnic dinner at 5:30 p.m. and a barn contra dance at 6:30 p.m. Duke Farms, 1112 Duke Parkway West, Hillsborough, N.J.  


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.


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