Organic—and sustainable—in South Jersey
Beginning in 1999, Bob Muth started transitioning acres to organic. He now has nine of his 80 acres certified organic . . . and is wondering if he should go all the way organic with his CSA, farm stand and wholesale operations.

By Laura Sayre

Strawberry fields for ever: For the moment, the Muths' 3/4 of an acre of strawberries are sustainable but not organic. Pictured here: Bob, at left, with Julio Marin and Eliberto Guzman. In the truck are Esteban Marin and Marcos Guzman.

Posted JUNE 11, 2003: “I don’t see a future in conventional production down here,” says Bob Muth, shaking his head. “Organic is the only way to go.”

This is a second-generation South Jersey vegetable grower talking, in his second year of fully certified organic production. In the first place, he explains, with the increase in conventional vegetable growing around the globe, wholesale prices are too low and too unpredictable. In the second place, it’s only a matter of time before environmental standards are tightened. “I hear they’re doing well now with lettuces down in Vineland. But every time it rains they put down another ton of fertilizer. I don’t even want to think about what’s going on with the groundwater under there. It can’t last.”

Sea of peppers, sinking fast: As a sustainable producer Bob does as much as 7 acres of red bell peppers. “Before NAFTA came through bell peppers were a good crop, you could make money. Now it’s a lot more difficult. I get fifty cents a pound for red peppers now. The biggest problem with peppers is disease, so you have to look at it as an integrated system.”

The Muth Farm is in Gloucester County, in southwestern New Jersey, south of Philadelphia and north of Vineland, the traditional hub of vegetable production on New Jersey’s broad coastal plain. Since Bob took over the family business in 1990, he’s focused on a handful of summer crops, including cucumbers, summer squash, melons, tomatoes, and bell peppers, grown in long rotations with extensive use of sod-forming cover crops. In the late 1990s he began transitioning to organic, and in 2002 he started a small CSA on his first 3 certified acres.

This year he’s got 9 acres organic out of a total of 80. A fifth of that 80 is in vegetables in any given year, and a little less than half is leased. While he’s started to transition additional acreage, the decision about whether to go 100% certified organic or continue with a balance of organic and sustainable production will depend on how markets develop in his area.

Bob brings a lifetime of experience to diversified vegetable production. He grew up helping his dad out on the farm, did an undergraduate degree in vegetable crops at Rutgers University and some additional graduate work in plant virology, and spent three years as a county extension agent in South Carolina, helping tobacco growers shift into other marketable crops (“legal crops only, I told them,” he jokes). When his dad was ready to retire, Bob came home, eventually working out an agreement with his five brothers and sisters to put the family property into a trust in order to keep it intact. Today, Bob’s wife Leda acts as the farm’s business manager and helps with marketing; their son Daniel, age 7, works in the summers as Number One Field Scout for pests.

For the bulk of his fieldwork Bob relies on four seasonal, full-time Mexican immigrants, one of whom has been with him for 10 years. He pays a competitive hourly wage and gives his men free on-farm housing, airfare, and produce. Bob values his workers highly and places a great deal of confidence in their abilities and opinions. “This is a business, not a hobby,” he emphasizes. “It’s got to support my family, plus enable me to pay enough to support my workers’ families.” When he was deciding to do the CSA, he talked the idea over with his crew first. “I asked them, do you think we can handle this? They said yes, so we decided to go for it.”

Protecting his organic investment: This was Bob’s first field to transition. He selected an area that was well isolated from his neighbors, bordered by woods on three sides and on the fourth side by his own hayfield. “Look those borders over real careful,” he advises. “They’re the first thing your certifier is going to look at.” Amazingly, he controls deer with a single strand of electric wire and generous use of human hair, which he gets from his local barber. In the field: broccoli and mulched onions.

Bob’s standard rotation is designed to increase soil aggregation and build long-term fertility without spending a lot of money. Most of his soils are a gravelly sandy loam known as Aura, well drained and with 15% clay. To boost organic matter, Bob starts by applying large quantities of municipal leaves. The state of New Jersey banned shade-tree leaves from landfills in the late 1980s, and regulations allow farmers to apply up to a 6-inch layer annually, equivalent to 20 tons of dry matter per acre. Bob now gets 10,000 cu yds a season from Monroe Township, free of charge, and spreads it in January, when the ground is frozen, to avoid compacting the soil.

People who think that municipal leaves are full of trash and have no nutrients are wrong on both counts, says Bob. According to research done by Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 20 tons/acre of leaves can add 400 lbs of nitrogen, 40 lbs of phosphorous, 152 lbs of potassium, 656 lbs of calcium, 96 lbs of magnesium, 58 lbs of iron, 44 lbs of sulfur, 22 lbs of manganese, and 1.5 lbs of boron to the soil. “None of that’s readily available,” Bob points out, but it will be over time. “You’ll see that moving in two to three years later in your soil tests.”

The thick layer of leaves keeps the ground relatively wet, so Bob usually waits until June to plow the leaves under and then plant hay. “A hay crop regenerates its root system two to three times a year, which builds organic matter,” notes Bob. “But more importantly, it moves you into a no-till situation, which conserves organic matter.” Tillage accelerates the decomposition of organic matter in the soil, so “anything you can do to reduce tillage is going to help your OM levels.”

Hay fields for fertility: One of Bob's hay fields, with his barn in the distance. Organic matter (OM)is typically light in the sandy soils of South Jersey. Bob uses an extended rotation to improve fertility. It starts with a heavy layer of leaves from a nearby municipality, followed by 2 or 3 years of hay, bringing his OM from 1.5% up to around 6%.
Normally Bob sells the hay—he has an arrangement with a farmer nearby to do all the haymaking in exchange for half the crop—but on the fields he was converting to organic, he decided to keep that material in the system, flailing it and letting it lie. After two or three years in hay, Bob plows under the sod in the fall and plants a cover crop of rye and hairy vetch. Finally, in the following spring he plows down the cover when it's around six or eight inches high, and the field is ready to return to vegetables.

With this rotation Bob has brought his OM levels up to 6% in an area where 1.5% is typical, and satisfied all his fertility requirements. “I remember one of my professors telling me years ago, ‘if you can build the organic matter level is your soil, you can solve most of your production problems right away’—and he was right.” Today Bob’s sandy South Jersey soils are visibly darkened with the additional OM.

If the system has a flaw, it is in raising phosphorous too high, so Bob is working on ways to bring those levels down. Otherwise, he says, “Weed control is my biggest problem. With organic matter so high, the weeds just love it. I cultivate at the string stage, but a week or so after you go through there’s another whole crop coming up again.” After a series of well-timed cultivations, Bob and his crew lay a thick mulch of straw between the rows to discourage late-season weeds.

The Muths’ approach to CSA has been both cautious and innovative. In 2002, they offered 35 shares over a ten-week period, priced at about $30 a week for a generously sized share. This year they’ve signed on over 100 members (with a few more on a waiting list) and plan to distribute for 12 weeks in June, August, and September, keeping July free for Bob and his workers to focus on their wholesale crops.

Not just a box of vegetables: When Bob's CSA customers visit the farm, the retention rate soars to 95%--they realize its not just a box of vegetables.

Bob is pleased with the way the CSA membership has grown. “Around sixty percent of [our members this year] come from within three or four miles of here, which I think is just great,” he marvels.

Each week, the Muths do two pickup days at the farm and two drop-offs to sites in greater Philadelphia, but Bob finds the farm pickups work better. “We did the numbers, and we had 95% retention rate with people coming to the farm, and a 70% turnover rate with people coming to the drop-off sites.” Even with newsletters and invitations to come visit the farm, people coming to the drop-off sites “haven’t made the farm connection,” as Bob puts it. “To them it’s still just a box of vegetables.”

The CSA is giving Bob a chance to work with vegetable crops he and his father had long ago given up growing for their wholesale markets, as well as serving as a testing ground for crops like red bell peppers, which he wasn’t sure at first whether he could do successfully under organic management. With the eyes of his conventional neighbors on him, Bob confesses that he was nervous last spring about how things would look, but by the end of the season he was amazed at how smoothly things had gone from a production standpoint. “The quality blew me away. It was better than the best-run conventional operation I’ve ever seen. Leda called it ‘Bob’s little Garden of Eden.’”

In fact, the real challenge turned out to be marketing the surplus, even after giving his CSA members more than they were bargaining on. Last year he sold a few organic tomatoes through a Vineland broker to an up-market customer on Long Island, and offered samples to some other regional organic wholesalers and retailers, but was frustrated to find that many of the latter buy their organic produce from California or abroad and were not interested in local alternatives. “I’d like to see people educated to the point where they’ll go into their supermarket and say, ‘I want to see local produce in here,’” Bob says. Otherwise, “our wholesale days are numbered.”

“I’d like to see people educated to the point where they’ll go into their supermarket and say, ‘I want to see local produce in here,’” Bob says. Otherwise, “our wholesale days are numbered.”

Like most farmers in New Jersey, the Muths also struggle with high land values. It’s tricky to run a parallel operation, with dedicated organic and non-organic equipment and clearly demarcated packing areas, and Bob would like to convert the whole operation to organic, but that plan may not be workable on some of his rented acreage. He’s been trying to purchase a bit more land here and there, but with a 77-acre piece nearby recently selling for $4.2 million, even preserved farmland is spiraling out of reach.

Still, Bob seems to believe that it’s up to the farmer to figure out how to survive in this market, to make him or herself valued by the immediate community. “I often ask myself, what kind of farm are we going to pass on to the next generation?” With growers like Bob leading the way, the answer may be: sustainable, organic farms, selling locally.