By Huck Fairman
In our time and world, when many of us spend the day indoors in front of a computer and seldom come in contact with nature, a relatively new trend, an alternative lifestyle is also taking root in several Princeton-Montgomery farms.
While there are a number of Farm-to-Table enterprises in the area now, this column will take a look at one of them, perhaps the most diverse in its activities.
The Cherry Valley Cooperative Farm is approximately a year old. Its creators were fortunate to find a potential owner who was interested in supporting their plan to create a community-based food hub supplying both local restaurants and residents with fresh, local food – but also offering other services and activities.
That potential owner then won the farm’s auction in July 2016, and the deed was signed in September, transferring ownership of the 97 acres that formerly belonged to the Raymond family, to the new owner, who is essentially an investor.
Three easements on the property help make the enterprise viable and accessible. The owners of these easements are Montgomery Township, Montgomery Friends of Open Space, and the NJ Conservation Foundation. Their participation allows 55 acres to be preserved as farmland, 35 acres to be conserved forest, and another parcel to used as a public access trail through the property’s woods.
Because the new owner recognizes that it takes time to get a business up and running, he is giving the cooperative time to do that before it starts paying off loans and costs.
An interesting, and perhaps unique, mix of approaches and partnerships also helped get the farm going. First they engaged with the county in Site Specific Agricultural Marketing Plan that permitted variances to conduct such community programming as harvest festivals, yoga, meditation, music jams, and potluck dinners – in short, promoting agritourism.
A second novel approach, conceived by the farm’s lead creator Alec Gioseffi, was to instead of approaching the seven township departments separately, invite them all to visit and tour the farm together. This accelerated the permitting process considerably.
Although many individuals have participated and contributed to the cooperative, Gioseffi and his wife, Lauren, were the two who brought together the threads of the overall approach and saw its realization through.
Alec grew up in Plainsboro, went to high school there and then to Rutgers, where he studied visual arts, photography and agriculture/ecology. Looking back at his large, close family, he sees that it may have introduced him to a more communal approach to living and probably stimulated his interest in food.
While going to school he worked at Princeton’s former Wild Oats, as well as at various local restaurants and doing catering at Rutgers, often moving up to chef. Following college, he was able to visit Europe, sample its cuisines, and to work on a Kibbutz in Israel and on a Shtetl in Ukraine, where he saw that the agrarian lifestyle was possible. Part of what he took from those experiences was a recognition of the benefits of closer relations and communication between food producers and their customers.
After that, working in Eno Terra’s kitchen, he learned of its nearby farm providing the restaurant’s fresh produce. He moved over to work at that farm, and in 2013 became a co-manager. Needing more acreage, the operation moved to a 10-acre farm in Franklin Township.
But again, as both the farming and its associated activities expanded, Alec and his partners saw the need for still more acreage – which led in time to the Cherry Valley Cooperative Farm purchase.
Normally, winter is down time for farmers, but the new cooperative participants found they had much to do, not only renovating and adapting the existing buildings, but building new ones and communicating with Montgomery Townships jurisdictional offices.
Once that was accomplished, Alec, Lauren, and other participants could begin putting in place the agriculture and other activities they envisioned. They saw that they would need a number of partners utilizing the acreage and buildings in order to make the coop financially viable.
They also envisioned that several existing organizations and frameworks could help them design and organize their coop. These included Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) which allows the community to get involved by taking on shared risk and giving the farm a working budget for a season. Additionally, the farm’s participants, who act as independent producers/facilitators, each take on a niche in the farm’s business as both producers and distributors.
A second guiding principle the coop adopted is Permaculture, which is a design process that adapts one’s agricultural production to the natural environmental systems in which one is located.
Education is yet another guiding principle and goal. Practical courses are offered at the co-op, including: chainsaw maintenance, foraging, outdoor movement, fermentation and preservation workshops, greenhouse propagation, and simply the opportunity to learn about local agriculture. Also the co-op has partnered with NOFA-NJ to provide farming and garden education programming. And it collaborates with the Princeton Montessori School for education programming in Middle School science classes.
On the farm itself, Alec, Lauren, and their partners saw that it would make sense if each focused on individual areas. Thus Lauren and Alec concentrate on vegetables; another partner, Chris, focuses on Forest mushrooms propagation; Lauren and Samuel do yoga and meditation. Local artist, Peter Abrams, tends to the sheep, pigs, and 600 chickens. Aside from dividing up the areas of work, this also spreads the risk, as participants become partners, sharing in costs, risks, and profits.
The co-op supplies fresh food to the Terra Momo Restaurant Group, to the Brick Farm Market and Tavern, and to the Whole Earth Center. Approximately 150 local families buy portions of the farm’s produce, and 7,000 people are on the co-op’s mailing list, keeping them abreast of food offerings and activities.
To further connect the communities and nature, and to generate income, the co-op offers nature classes for children and farming experience for young adults. Currently it is building housing, in the form of YURTS, for those working on the farm. (After obtaining permits for the farm workers and managers to live on site. )
In short, the over-arching idea is to integrate nature and community farming into an ecological-sensitive entity. The co-op members see this as a means to help bring people back in touch with the nature around them and with the food they eat, in its most healthy forms.
In the course of doing this, an associated idea is make more food local and not largely dependent on energy-intensive shipping. Additionally, by saving more acreage for farming, and nature, our environments will be better able to absorb and sequester the carbon in our atmosphere.
Thus the Cherry Valley Cooperative Farm is an ambitious, multifaceted enterprise that is addressing a range of challenges that our local communities and region face. For its concepts and efforts, it has won local support and interest, as people see that it is to the benefit of all that we preserve and improve the interface between man and nature.
By Huck Fairman