Food from the Family Farm

By Warren Kalbacker

Published on August 8, 2007

Ted Blew is usually up by 5 a.m., turning on the radio, listening to the weather report. Humidity levels, impending storm fronts, even cloud cover, will determine the schedule for the day. With a warm, dry forecast, he could be out in the fields as early as 5:15. It seems there is always some plowing to be done, or seeds to be sown. Every two weeks from April through August, it's the sunflowers: Ted fills the planter, hooks it to the John Deere 2030, and, for a couple of hours, chugs up and down the quarter-acre flower patch on the west side of the house.

Ted's wife, Susan, sleeps in till 6 a.m., then usually heads straight for her greenhouses. Except for the squashes, pumpkins, and wheat, some of the corn, and some of the sunflowers, everything grown on the farm starts here, in Susan's hands. She spends three to four hours each day planting, transplanting, and fussing over her seedlings. She waters by touch, feeling for the dryness of the soil, but she also takes into consideration the temperature and humidity outside—both of which matter, even inside a greenhouse.

Susan also shepherds the kids through their routines. Charity and Eric are usually feeding the hogs by 6:30, and Amanda and Jonathan are up to sweep the barn and feed the gray gelding, named 7-11. When he isn't working outside, Ted supervises breakfast—sometimes pancakes with sausage, sometimes just bagels or cereal. Susan comes in to make up bag lunches and get the children out the door to school.

"We try not to work on Sunday," says Ted. "We call it 'pick-a-flower day'." The name serves as a reminder to the Blews to do something for themselves, he explains—something nice. "Like fix the shutters, or trim the bushes." Sometimes Susan uses Sunday morning to bake—Swedish coffee bread from her grandfather's recipe, for instance. (All the Blews take turns in the kitchen; Eric supposedly makes great spaghetti sauce.)

I pull into the Blews' driveway one morning at 9 a.m. Ted waves while unhitching the planter. He checks the oil in the diesel engine as I walk over, looks up, and immediately apologizes for having no time to talk. The sloping 4-acre plot beside Lockatong Creek needs mulching. Today, they'll lay rows of black plastic; tomorrow morning, straw. Ted calls this a double-mulch layer, and says it helps retard weeds and prevent soil erosion. Later that day, they'll sweep off the straw, then poke holes through the plastic, and tuck some of Susan's greenhouse pepper plants into the soil through the holes.

"Susan will do the talking this morning," Ted says. "You can walk with her behind the tractor." I grab a shovel, attempting to help out. "Did you see our historical marker out front?" she asks. "This land has been farmed since the 1700s."

The Blews don't live in California, Kansas, or any other place you might think of as "farm country". They work 160 acres of fertile soil in Hunterdon County in western New Jersey. Their farm, Oak Grove Plantation, is small by national standards, but is one of the largest in the area. According to the Census Bureau, New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country but also the tenth most important agriculturally, has some 9,000 farms; the majority of these, however, harvest fewer than 180 acres, and half of them fewer than 50. Oak Grove Plantation, therefore, is a big fish in a small pond.

The Blews grow what the market demands, and that means 151 kinds of hot chiles, 70 kinds of sweet peppers, 40 kinds of squashes, 17 kinds of eggplants, 15 kinds of sugar pumpkins, and 22 kinds of sunflowers. There are also tomatoes, tomatillos, watermelons, and muskmelons. In the greenhouses, Susan coddles nasturtiums, herbs—everything from borage to cinnamon basil—and 30 kinds of lettuces and greens, including trendy, delicate types like kyona-mizuna. In addition, the Blews have around 150 hogs and cultivate about 55 acres of corn, oats, rye, wheat, and buckwheat. Then there are the pets—more than two dozen cats, a horse, and a black labrador named Sassy. What they don't have is pesticides. Everything at Oak Grove Plantation is organic.

I first met Ted a dozen years ago in New York City. Two and sometimes three days a week, he trucks "whatever is ready to go" to the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. The night before market, he and Susan, often with the help of Charity and Eric, pack their 15-foot van with goods like sunflowers, pepper plants, pots of herbs, flats of lettuce, and bags of grain and flour. Sometimes, they even add a few dozen of Charity's desserts (muffins, blondies, pies, and breads), if she has had time to bake. On market days, Ted gets up an hour early. He fills the freezer chest with pork products—hams, chops, steaks, sausages, hot dogs, and bacon (almost all preservative free) processed from the Blews' hogs by a Mennonite family in Souderton, Pennsylvania. By the time Susan gets up, Ted is on Interstate 78. It takes him almost an hour and a half to get into the city, and his colorful stand is usually set up for business by 7:45 a.m. Working until it gets too dark to do so, the earliest he gets home (in the winter) is 6 p.m.; during peak season, however, it can be as late as 9:15.

Ted's trip is nothing unusual. The Hunterdon County commute is comparatively short: Some farmers who sell their wares in the city drive for as long as seven hours—each way. More than 200 farmers (or bakers or fishermen) pay from $35 to $65 a day, depending on the market location and the day of the week, to rent 12-foot slots to sell their goods in the Big Apple, representing about 16,000 acres of farmland.

Similar farmers'-market success stories can be found across the country. However, the newfound popularity of these markets doesn't guarantee a rosy future for the small farmer in America. Proximity to a major market area is important for success, but there is no magic formula for keeping farms in production.

Ted Blew grew up in Vera Cruz, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Allentown. He says he always had a knack for farm work—due in part to the influence of his grandparents, Claude and Stella Stibitz, who had a 40-acre farm just outside nearby Tamaqua. Ted started bringing home 4-H Club ribbons when he was 10. He went on to earn an agronomy degree from Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture, worked awhile for a seed company, and then began managing 1,000-acre alfalfa, corn, rye, and wheat farms for Cooperative Farms in eastern Pennsylvania.

Susan grew up a few miles down the road from Oak Grove. Her parents, George and Grace Johnson, ran a 234-acre thoroughbred horse ranch and dairy farm, and she and her two brothers often helped with groomings and twice-a-day milkings. Whenever Grace tried to steer her daughter towards more, well, "feminine" pursuits—ironing, cleaning, canning, baking—Susan always wandered outside. In 1969, George Johnson sold the farm, and it ended up a part of Cooperative Farms. Ted Blew, then 23, was brought aboard as a manager. Four years later, Ted and Susan were married, and four years after that, they bought Oak Grove Plantation and started raising corn, soybeans, hay, and straw on their own, selling it wholesale in Philadelphia. The drought of 1980, however, changed the nature of their business. The only thing that didn't wilt that summer, says Susan, was a 4-acre field of vegetables. Their county cooperative extension agent told them about the Union Square market, and they started planting vegetables for it in their grain fields. The following spring, they were selling three kinds of hot chiles in Manhattan.

It was quite a change from the kind of anonymous large-scale farming Ted had been used to—where, as he puts it, "You can plant millions of plants, but never touch a single one." Today, he says, "We know where every plant is, and we pass by it on a daily basis. Then we take it to market and meet, and talk to, the people who are going to eat it."

Sometimes customers even give Ted seeds to plant. He takes them home and gives them to Susan, who does just that. She's always looking for something new to grow. That's why there are so many food and farming magazines, seed catalogues, and agricultural reference books around the house. Susan studies constantly—finding out what kinds of chiles are raised in different parts of Mexico, say, or what the medicinal benefits of feverfew may be. She carries one of her many yellow legal pads everywhere. "It's just a day-by-day diary," she claims. In fact, it's a detailed log of everything on the farm. Susan can tell you how many seeds went in each hole and where those seeds came from. She knows how much of each item was planted, how well it sold, and what the customer is likely to be wanting next year. And she knows enough to keep her notes locked up in a fireproof safe.

Oak Grove, as a result, isn't the same when Susan is away. These days, a farmer's job is not just in the fields, or even at the markets. Susan has made presentations on raising peppers and working with grains in New York City restaurants. She and Charity write up recipes (hot pepper jelly, jalapeño corn sticks) and fact-filled information sheets for Ted to hand out at the market. And a lot of Susan's time—too much time, she says—is spent at public hearings and in politicians' offices. She was one of 25 New Jerseyans chosen for the New Jersey Agricultural Leadership Development Program, spending three days in Washington, D.C. (during which time she put a moratorium on any transplanting in the greenhouse and bought a pager and a cellular phone in case of watering emergencies), where she met with delegates and USDA officials to learn, she says, "how to make our voices heard, develop political connections, and know where to go if there is a problem." Problems like overregulation, adds Ted.

As suburbanites trickle into Hunterdon County—and other largely agrarian areas of the U.S.—farmers face more and more demands and restrictions. Ted claims that too many newcomers are worried about issues like the water supply and how best to keep the county's beautiful "open spaces" open. Of course they mean well, he's quick to add, but the legislation that gets passed often doesn't have the farmers' best interests in mind. That's why it took two years for the Blews to build a storage shed: A host of expensive environmental-impact studies were initially required before construction could begin. And that's why the Blews' three greenhouses are almost concealed behind their barns. "There have been grumblings about the township creating greenhouse limitations," Ted says. "People just don't like the way they look."

Ordinances, if left unchecked, can also dictate what and how much farmers can grow, Ted explains—and that worries him because the Blews don't have the option of selling out to a developer if things get tough. In 1985, they were the first farm family in the state to be accepted into The New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program. By law, Oak Grove can never be anything but a farm—whether it remains in the family or not. Farmland, even 160 acres of it, doesn't hold a price tag anywhere near that for land earmarked for development. "We know in our hearts that we did the right thing," Ted says, "but it's frustrating not to have an out."

This afternoon, Susan is relieved that the thunderheads looming over the Delaware Valley haven't yet moved east. She wants to mill some of the wheat, which must be done before the storm. "If I work when it rains," Susan explains, "it gums up my machine." The kids will be home soon to help out. Eric, says Ted, can hardly change out of his school clothes and get going on something outside fast enough. He is certain that Eric will end up running the family farm.

Tonight, as usual at the Blews', things probably won't quiet down until around 11. Ted admits that he often falls asleep on the recliner while watching TV. He also sometimes wakes up at 2 to find Susan working on the farm's books, updating her planting notes, and thinking about what to do tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.

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