I’ve written a lot about sustainability over the past year and how it relates to wine grape growing and wine production. But it hadn’t occurred to me to look at how sustainability works in other agricultural sectors.
Then while driving home from Provincetown last month, Cy and I stopped for lunch at the Americana Diner in Hightstown, NJ, which is Cy’s hometown. The diner gets particularly crowded on weekends, and there’s a wait for tables. This summer, customers had the opportunity to buy fresh produce during their waits from a local farmer who set up a stand out front – Gabriel Siciliano of Abe’s Acres Farm in Hightstown.
Cy and I chatted with Gabe and bought some beautiful produce. After we were back home, Cy looked at Gabe’s website and read me the description: “Produce and herbs grown sustainably in Hightstown, New Jersey! Our products are better than organic… ask us how!” Given my skepticism about sustainability, I decided to take him up on it and ask. We spoke about a week later, and I learned a lot about small-scale organic and sustainable farming. This post is an edited version of our conversation.
First, though, a little about Gabe and the farm. Gabe is 25 years old, and 2017 is his first year of commercial farming. He grows mixed annuals on 1.5 acres. The land is part of a 200+-acre property that was purchased by his great-grandfather, Abraham Feldsher, in the 1930s. Gabe’s grandfather (Abraham’s son-in-law), Joe Notterman, continued the family farm, and he was also a psychology professor at Princeton University. The property was eventually rented to another farmer who still grows soybeans on most of the land. Gabe was able to carve out his parcel for farming with only minor soil amending, and has plans to expand in the future.
A fun coincidence: when Cy mentioned that he grew up in Hightstown, Gabe said, “Then I’ll bet my grandmother was your pediatrician.” Dr. Rebecca Notterman was indeed Cy’s pediatrician – the town’s pediatrician, in fact – and Cy remembers her fondly. She is 92 now and only recently retired from practice. So Gabe has deep roots in the community. In that way, he reminded me of the wine producers I buy from, whose families often lived on the vineyard land for generations and are community leaders as well.
You’ve named your farm Abe’s Acres after your great-grandfather. Had he always been a farmer? No, not at all. My great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Russia during the pogroms. As a Jewish man, he wasn’t allowed to own property so he wasn’t a landowner, and he hadn’t been a farmer. He became a grocer in Brooklyn when he came to this country. But he really wanted to do what had been denied him and buy land, so he and his wife moved to Hightstown with their three young daughters, including my grandmother – who later became your husband’s pediatrician.
That’s a great story! When we spoke at the farm stand, you mentioned that you’re supplying a few local restaurants in addition to selling to the public. What have you grown this year? A range of annual vegetables — potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beets, chard, kale, carrots, turnips, and parsnips. It’s tough to rattle them off like this, I may have left something out! I’ll grow garlic over the winter and harvest it in the spring, too.
How did you get interested in the environmental aspects of agriculture? Through the apprenticeships I did before starting the farm. One was at Chickadee Creek Farm in New Jersey that taught me about the economics of organic farming. The other was at Quail Hill Farm on Long Island. It’s also a land trust, and without some of the financial pressures on them they are able to push the envelope on truly sustainable practices.
You really made me curious by saying on your website that you thought sustainable farming was better than organic. I’ve come to the conclusion – at least for sustainable winemaking and grape-growing – that the economic part of sustainability tends to outweigh the other parts, so I’m not necessarily a fan. Why are you? I’m kind of a purist when it comes to sustainability and I go back to what I think is its original definition: Meeting current needs, and making sure that future generations can meet their needs as well.
So how do you think that this is any different than, say, the CEO of a large oil company would view sustainability? Because of the word “needs.” It should be about meeting our needs, not our wants. Not the level of consumption we have now for things like food and textiles and water use. Because our current production system and consumption level is unsustainable. Even if there’s a certification for it.
The other thing is that you’re right — industry, and even super-large agriculture, thinks mostly of being economically sustainable. That is, how long can they sustain their current activity and still make a profit.
I found the same thing when I was doing environmental work, evaluating pollution prevention plans for industrial facilities in New Jersey. Even if projects seemed like no-brainers financially, most facilities wouldn’t do them. I’m not surprised, most factories are going to want as many years out of current operations as possible. Eventually they’re going to have to completely re-tool anyway, and they’d want to spend as little as possible in the meantime.
But the problem with that is, it puts the onus on the consumer rather than the producer to learn if production is done as efficiently and with as little possible harm as they can manage.
And on the surrounding community, too, I absolutely agree. So in the interests of informing the consumer, why would you choose sustainable rather than organic? Particularly when the rules for organic certification are codified, and sustainability doesn’t really have rules. Don’t get me wrong, I think organic is a good starting point. I’m in my first year of three to becoming organic certified. But until I’m certified, USDA won’t allow me to use the word organic. I can’t use it on any signage, packaging, etc.
Really? You can’t say that you’re in organic transition? I could say that talking to people at the farm stand and to my restaurant customers – and I do, just not on paper. But I find it’s a lot easier to talk about sustainability because I’m following the organic rules, but also pulling in other things I think are important. Then I can talk about those as well with my customers. Also, I think the USDA organic standards are below par.
Then why go for organic certification at all? Well, as I said, it’s a place to start. Some farmers don’t want to, because while the costs of certification are partially subsidized, it means a lot more bureaucracy than normal. I look at it as an opportunity, though, because it’s a lot harder to make changes to the system if you don’t participate. As for the standards, I think farmers have a responsibility to ameliorate as much potential environmental effects as possible, from chemical use to soil conservation and climate change mitigation. “Organic” as we know it is only a part of that.
Did you have to do anything to your soil to begin the process of transition to organic certification? Not much. The land has been farmed by someone growing soybeans. So the only things used were some artificial fertilizers and Roundup – since it’s practically impossible to grow any soybeans other than the Roundup-ready ones these days. But none of that stuff persisted in the soil. After the initial testing, I was asked to amend the soil with some elemental boron, since it was low. That made me scratch my head a little.
How so? Well, elemental boron is an artificial product, it doesn’t exist in nature. If I hadn’t been instructed to use it prior to planting, I wouldn’t have been allowed to use it later under the USDA rules. It’s too bad, because elemental boron is also a safe herbicide, so it could be even more useful.
You’ve mentioned water use a number of times, so I imagine that’s something you’re focusing on. Yes, absolutely. I’m using drip irrigation, because you pretty much have to irrigate annuals most years. But I’m always looking to save on water and the associated costs like pumping. I’d like to start some perennials like asparagus and artichokes, because they’re dry-farmed. I hear that’s happening more these days in vineyards, too.
Yes, nearly all of the European wine producers I import from operate irrigation-free. And you’re finding it more in U.S. vineyards, too. It forces grapevines to get deep roots with lots of soil contact. And the older the vines get, the more concentrated the grapes become. This is true of grapevines in general, but even more with dry farming. That’s interesting. There are plenty of orchards with older trees around here, but I don’t know if they produce better fruit than younger trees. At one of our local ag meetings, the owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton told me that less irrigation produces sweeter fruit, so he tries to irrigate as little as possible.
I wonder that you have time for meetings! It seems like a lot of work, even on 1.5 acres. How much time do you spend on it? In theory, it’s 50 hours per week per acre.
So this is basically an 80 hour-a-week job for you? That must make it difficult to do other things. Yes, pretty much. It’s my first year and I’m doing it myself, unless I can get someone to help, usually that’s for things like the farm stands. But I’d like to expand. In five years I’d like to have between nine and 12 acres, and maybe five employees. In the meantime, though, it’s hard work keeping it all together. I have to admit I have some jealousy when I look at pictures of other people’s farms on Instagram!
I think everyone with the app has some Insta-jealousy. And looking at your site, you’ve clearly found a way to take enviable photos already. It was great talking to you, and I look forward to checking in as you go forward. Thanks, Tom – it was great meeting you and Cy, and I’d love to talk with you again.
It seems funny not to add a recipe to a post of a conversation with a vegetable farmer. Sorry about that. But the weather is making me think more of fall and I’m coming up with recipes for the season. Next post, I promise!