Help the Garden State’s farmers this year

By Michele S. Byers

Farming is unpredictable, with crops dependent on good soils and the right amounts of sun and rain. Droughts, floods, wind storms, blights and pest infestations can all derail a farm’s growing season.

This year, with the worldwide outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, farmers face additional challenges. Many farmers’ livelihoods depend on selling to restaurants, but in New Jersey and beyond many restaurants have either shut down or switched to take-out meals.

“Some of our farmers are really going to be hurting this year,” said Stephanie Harris, secretary of the board of directors of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ).

How can you help farmers in the Garden State? Start by “eating local” and buying as many fruits, vegetables and other farm products as possible from New Jersey farmers.

One thing you can do right now is purchase a share in a CSA farm. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it helps keep local farmers strong while guaranteeing that you will get the freshest and tastiest vegetables for your table this summer.

In the early spring, farmers have lots of expenses – seeds, supplies and equipment – and not much income. With a CSA, members of the community buy up-front “shares” – also known as memberships or subscriptions – to keep farmers going until their crops are ready to harvest.

In return, CSA shareholders get healthy, seasonal produce each week throughout the harvest season. Many CSAs allow members to customize their shares according to household size, vegetable preferences and vacation schedules, and a few toss in extras like inviting members to help themselves to “U-pick” crops. Some CSAs even offer direct deliveries to homes.

“We would really like to encourage people to sign up for CSAs early to help our farmers,” said Stephanie.

You can also buy fresh produce at local farm markets. Beginning in a month or two, hundreds of farm markets will pop up in cities and towns across the Garden State.

Not only do those farm markets offer locally grown fruits and veggies, but they are also chock-full of farm products like cheeses, eggs, pickles, salsas, jams, honey, baked goods, flowers and locally made soaps and candles.

Farm markets will have to take coronavirus precautions, but they won’t be prohibited from opening.

Said Stephanie, “The governor has determined farm markets are an essential service.”

Supporting local farmers not only helps New Jersey’s economy, but also can help reduce emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. Buying locally grown produce creates less air pollution since produce is not being trucked across the country.

Buy organic produce whenever possible, because going organic and eating less meat helps to further reduce the climate impacts of our food choices.

Many farms are adopting sustainable agricultural practices like no-till or less-till planting, growing winter cover crops, rotating crops and planting companion crops.

And many organic farmers are practicing “regenerative” agriculture, which boosts microbes in the soil that store carbon.

Some studies report that if farmers around the world switched to regenerative methods, soils could absorb enough carbon to significantly decrease the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

According to Stephanie, the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted another issue in New Jersey: food security – that is, making sure there os enough food to feed all nine million of the Garden State’s residents.

“We have to increase the food security of New Jersey because we import so much from other countries and other states,” she said.

To improve New Jersey’s food independence and security, NOFA-NJ encourages families to start their own backyard victory garden, just as families did during World War II. For folks living in places without space for backyard gardens, many towns and nonprofit organizations offer “community gardens” where people can rent or borrow a small garden plot for the season.

There is no single comprehensive listing of CSA farms in New Jersey, but there are several ways to find farms near you.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s “Jersey Fresh” program has an interactive map at https://findjerseyfresh.com/availability/ and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey has an interactive map of organic farms at https://farmandfoodguide.com/

Local Harvest offers a searchable database at https://www.localharvest.org/csa/

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org