By Jennifer Ortiz
HOWELL – Marilyn Schlossbach, an executive chef and restaurant owner, and Susan Keymer, the owner of Merrick Farm, have teamed up to bring farm-to-table food to New Jersey.
Schlossbach, who owns five dining locations along the Jersey Shore, said the flavor and quality of taste of a product that is fresh from a farm is amazingly different from other foods and “there is no way to even explain it.”
Schlossbach said she has been purchasing produce from Merrick Farm for more than a decade. Her favorites from the farm include garlic, rainbow chard, kale and herbs. She said there is more control over produce when it is farmed nearby, compared to when it comes from a long distance away.
“If you have a tomato that has traveled from Mexico across the country, they pick them early so they are not fully ripened and so they are not total mush by the time they make it to their destination. With most fruit or seeded vegetables, you cannot pick them early, they will not continue to ripen, they will ripen as far as texture, but the taste is never the same,” Schlossbach said.
Keymer said she inherited Merrick Farm in the early 1990s. She moved back from California, where organic food was the norm, before it took off in New Jersey.
“We had gone to an organic fair in Pennington and learned what community supported agriculture (CSA) is. It is where you purchase a share of the produce of a farm early in the season, like January and February, to give the farm the finances it needs to get the season going. For almost 20 years we did a CSA and we had extra food we could sell to Marilyn. She was really a supporter because at that point there was not any organic (food) around, it was really the beginning,” Keymer said.
After working the land for 20 years, Keymer said it needed rest and nurturing.
“We did something called cover cropping, which is taking a green crop, growing it and then grinding it back in so that it nourishes the soil and adds the nitrogen. After 20 years my soil was hungry, so we rested it for two years,” Keymer said.
Keymer has since stopped working with CSA, which allows her to grow whatever quantity or selection is needed for Schlossbach’s restaurants. Without CSA financing, however, funding was needed to kick things off and that is when Schlossbach came up with a plan.
She said Keymer was excited by the prospect.
“Farming is tough. If you are not a marketer or a business person and you are in the field, you don’t really have time to get out and do the work it takes to sell the product. We have a big outreach and we have a big produce buy, so once we get this farm going we will be able to sustain it with just what we buy from the farm. The start-up is the tough part,” Schlossbach said.
A online fundraiser had a goal of raising $20,000, but did not reach that level of support. Efforts continue to seek support from individuals who want local farms to remain in business.
“We were hoping to raise enough money to get a tractor and some field equipment, and then we would like to put some irrigation in … Right now we have regular sprinklers,” Keymer said.
“It is hard to work as a farmer, just like it is in the restaurant business. Your margins are really low compared to most other industries and a lot of it is manual labor. You are constantly watching the weather and the bottom line and it is very similar to running a seasonal restaurant. So I relate to the struggle of what anybody who is farming, especially in our area, has to go through on a daily basis,” Schlossbach said.
Schlossbach’s farm-to-table restaurants are the Labrador Lounge in Normandy Beach (Toms River); Pop’s Garage, an authentic Mexican eatery in the Grove West in Shrewsbury; Langosta Lounge on the Asbury Park boardwalk; and Libby’s Beach Shack on the Asbury Park boardwalk.
Keymer and Schlossbach asked people to support local farmers and the culture of farming in New Jersey.
“When I see people in a grocery store buying corn that probably came from Canada and they live next door to somebody who grows fresh corn, I’m like, what’s wrong with this picture?” Keymer said.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/ChefMarilynSchlossbach or https://www.facebook.com/Merrick-Farm-180892525278312/