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Friday July 28, 2017

The Unlikely Road from Art Student to New Jersey Farmer

The Unlikely Road from Art Student to New Jersey Farmer

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A Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts graduate is working to foster a stronger connection between food and community

Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University
Alec Gioseffi took a risk and started a farm about a year after graduating college.

'Anyone who starts a business knows the first few years are hard, but I feel extremely privileged that I can walk outside, be involved with nature all day long, work with my friends and grow food for all these people.'
 
– Alec Gioseffi

Alec Gioseffi was unsure where his desire to have a job tied to nature, a childhood centered around food, and an arts degree would lead after college.

He remembers running through his parent’s house wearing a chef’s hat when he was 3. He went to work in restaurants during high school and became interested in organic food and eating local. By college, Gioseffi started watching documentaries and reading about the American food system and became concerned about what he saw.

Gioseffi’s philosophy about food was also deeply influenced by the time he spent traveling during his summers off from Rutgers. Seeing the different relationships that people in other countries had with food, community and the land made him want to bring that lifestyle home.  With a mix of serendipity and fearlessness that comes with being young, Gioseffi took a risk and started a farm about a year after graduating college.

“I always wanted to do something with food, I just thought it would be further away,’’ Gioseff said. “But we ended up living on this piece of property, and I started thinking ‘why wait 30 years, why not let nature take its course.’’’

He lives with nine other people in Franklin Township on nearly 10-acres named Cooperative 518. Gioseffi is the principal farmer for now, but his roommates and his fiancé Lauren Nagy share in the work. They grow fruits and vegetables to feed 65 families who participate in Cooperative 518’s Community Supported Agriculture program and sell food to several area restaurants.

Gioseffi’s ultimate goal is to create a farm owned by everyone who lives on the property, a vision inspired by the time he spent living on a Kibbutz in Israel.

“I wanted to create my own rendition of that, an educational community and food hub that people can rely on and be a part of,’’ Gioseffi said.

A series of events after graduation in 2012 propelled Gioseffi on a course to become an entrepreneur and farmer. He had been working as a line cook at Eno Terra in Kingston a few miles outside of Princeton and was offered a job managing the restaurant’s farm. The position gave him a preview of the back-breaking labor involved. But it also provided some crucial experience he could build on to manage his own property.

“My first season as farmer was the hardest thing that I have ever done,’’ Gioseffi said. “My partner was a guy who had a landscaping business, grew up on a farm in Mexico and would laugh at me all day long – but that gave me motivation to be able to do it. I worked really hard and now my body is used to it.’’

A few months after college, Gioseffi met his fiancé who shared his passion for food and community. As the couple was looking to rent an apartment together, through word of mouth they ended up finding a room in the house on the property that would become Cooperative 518.

A section of the land was already being farmed by someone who lived off site. A few others who had rented rooms in the house for years moved out, giving Gioseffi the chance to invite friends who shared his vision.

He realized that an opportunity was before him and he jumped. He approached his landlord who gave him permission to farm the property, quit his job and went to work on the land.

His grandfather gave him a $2,500 loan to get started and he raised another $5,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. His friends living in the house pitched in to help, but kept their other jobs because the farm did not pull in enough income to support everyone in the group.

“I worked for nothing and lived off savings to start planting before I could make any money,’’ Gioseffi said.

Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University
The Cooperative 518 crew (l. to r.) includig Thomas Murphy, Cathren Kull , co-owner Lauren Nagy, Chris Moran, Matthew Weiss, co-owner Alec Gioseffi and Dan De Lion.
The first year, Gioseffi ran CSA program for 20 families and began forming relationships to sell to local restaurants. He received a $10,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build a high tunnel greenhouse that is heated by the sun to extend his growing season. A second federal research grant helps him improve the quality of soil at Cooperative 518 and covers expensive soil testing and seed cost.

This year his budget had grown from $13,000 to $24,000 at the start of the season and the number of participants in the Cooperative 518 CSA more than trippled.

Gioseffi and his partners grow 400 different varieties of staple fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, berries and nuts with seeds sourced from heirloom collectors. They produce 42 different varieties of tomatoes alone and grow potatoes, onions, peppers, carrots, eggplants, sweet potatoes, beets, squash, and carrots. Sheep, chickens and pigs also graze on the farm and help fertilize the property.

One of the surprises on Gioseffi’s journey was the role that his time at the Mason Gross School of the Arts played in helping him define and reach his goal.

He majored in photography and art history and minored in agroecology. He took classes in organic crop production at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences while studying art, and continued to work in restaurants. For his senior project, Gioseffi created an art installation about his own investigation into the American food system.

“Being able to have the freedom to do my own research and find out what I was passionate about and make that the center of what I was studying was key,’’ Gioseffi said.

At Cooperative 518, Gioseffi works 10 hours a day 7 days a week. When he is not out in the field, he is managing the business, reviewing spreadsheets and answering emails. He estimates that he makes about $4 an hour for his work, but he has no regrets.

“Anyone who starts a business knows the first few years are hard, but I feel extremely privileged that I can walk outside, be involved with nature all day long, work with my friends and grow food for all these people,’’ Gioseffi said. “Being able to know that you are nourishing people, educating them and building a community is amazing.’’

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