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
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.