Rutgers’ organic farm invests in students' skills
Ed Durner may well be the only Rutgers faculty member with a 5-gallon orange plastic salad spinner sitting on the floor of his office.
That device, and a garden seeder stowed behind his desk chair, tell an important story about the researcher and his burgeoning enterprise: providing fresh, locally grown produce all summer long to a population hungry for a homegrown experience.
By selling “shares” in its harvest, the Cook Student Organic Farm represents a win-win-win situation for the university. The farm is guaranteed an annual income, enough to keep it self-sustaining; students who till the land as interns learn the joys and challenges of working on an organic farm; and consumers reap the best of the farm’s harvest on a weekly basis.
Add one more “win” to the mix: Any produce left over once the produce has been distributed goes to Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick.
Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, has been a farmer’s best friend for almost two decades, but farm director Durner noted the movement is enjoying a burst of popularity as interest in eating locally grown food swells. According to Local Harvest, an organic and local-food website, about 50 farms nationwide offered shares in 1990; the number is closer to 2,200 today.
“For [about] $25 a week, the shareholder gets to pick up a selection of organically grown produce, harvested just two to three days ago at most,” Durner said. “I predict that CSA will become even more popular in the next few years, especially when we hear of new food contamination, whether it’s peanuts or scallions or spinach.”
Located on five acres off Ryders Lane in New Brunswick, the farm – believed to be the largest student-run organic farm in the country – has been operating since 1993. In 2009, 175 shareholders will take part in the CSA project; another 400 names fill a waiting list, and Durner receives up to three calls or emails daily from area residents begging to become part of the trend.
“People are becoming more and more educated about where their food is coming from, and about the benefits of eating organically,” the Rutgers researcher said. Books by such mainstream writers as Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan also help fuel the movement, Durner added.
The cost to join the Cook CSA this year is $430 for a 16-week share (June through September) or $650 for a 24-week share (June through November). Last year, the basic fee of $400 bought $1,070 worth of produce as compared with prices at Whole Foods or Wegmans, Durner said. It also bought a taste of the lesser-known crops New Jersey harvests every year: minutia, for example, a crunchy lettuce that resembles a blade of grass with saw teeth; and claytonia, a green high in Vitamin C.
The varieties of tomato alone are enough to send even an experienced cook to his handy field guide: Amish Paste, San Marano, Healthy Kick, Golden Mama, and Striped Hollow, to name a few.
Every Thursday afternoon or Friday morning throughout the growing season, members drive up to a shed on Rutgers Horticulture Farm No. 3 at 67 Ryders Lane to pick out their own harvest from bins and shelves piled high with colorful fruits and vegetables.
Durner described the scene as hectic but friendly, as consumers exchange recipes – what do you do with Swiss chard? How many ways can you cook an eggplant? – and chat with the student interns staffing the facility.
“It’s a great way to put locally grown produce on your table,” said Mark Kelly, Rutgers’ manager of environmental sciences. The CSA participant, who splits his share with a colleague, helps feed his family of three with the farm's bounty. Now in his fourth year with the program, Kelly said he particularly likes the idea that CSA is providing jobs for students interested in sustainable agriculture.
Vincent Orazi is one of those students. A senior majoring in agricultural sciences, he is in his third season at the farm, having done everything from ordering and planting seeds to readying the fields for cultivating, and cleaning those fields after harvest. The 23-year-old, who earned an associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College, said he chose Rutgers specifically for the farm experience it offers.
“I got interested in sustainable agriculture before I came to Rutgers,” Orazi said. “I was always concerned about environmental issues, but I didn’t have direction. The farm gave me that direction.”
With a strong interest in urban farming and community gardens, the intern said he’s most impressed with the impact of CSA-like projects on neighborhoods. “What this type of agriculture can do for communities is pretty wild, pretty amazing,” Orazi noted. “It’s taking a wasteland that isn’t really being used for anything in particular and making it productive and useful for others.”