Farming has always been a key part of Hillsborough, but the costs of doing business and skyrocketing land values in the 1990s pushed many local farmers out of the business.
But a new trend may be starting, with new farmers launching business projects that could lead to new farms opening in the area — and an incubator project by the Northeast Organic Farming Association on Duke Farms may prove vital in any new agri-boom.
The farming association's Beginning Farmer Incubator Program has been in development for several years, with the group's association with Duke Farms helping open the gates to land made available to people interested in building an agricultural business.
Under the program, 100 acres at Duke Farms has been set aside for the beginning farmers, who commit to three leases to grow on the land. After the three years, program coordinator Eve Minson said the beginning farmers should be ready to lease larger plots somewhere else, and by working with the New Jersey Agricultural Development Board, she expects most will find suitable farms to lease and start larger, commercial organic farms.
"We hope to keep moving people off," she said.
With the farming association providing critical support, such as business development training and marketing, in addition to farm management training, the beginning farmers — including this year's inaugural group of Richard Moran, Wilson Klein and John and Kim Knox, will be ready to grow.
Moran and Klein each have 1-acre plots to launch their businesses on, but the Knox's are taking on nine acres.
The couple moved to New Jersey from Boulder, Colo., where John Knox helped build a 100-acre commercial organic farm after turning his back on a law career.
"I knew I couldn't work in an office, so I volunteered at a small organic farm that was starting up while I decided what I wanted to do," he said. As the farm grew from five acres to 100, he advanced into management positions.
A native of Liberty Corner, he was anxious to try his hand at managing his own business—but until the Beginning Farmer Program, there's was little hope to start from scratch.
The application for the program was quickly accepted, and after Kim Knox secured a job as a kindergarten teacher at Newark's Northstar Academy, the couple was set to relocate.
Their business plan for Dogwood Farms NJ is based on a community supported agriculture model, with shares offered of the produce grown on the plot. Knox said he's offering 50 shares this year, but hopes to increase the number to 150 or 200 later. Under this model, subscribers will receive a share of the produce grown each week from late June to mid-October for a flat fee.
The couple has also already arranged for meat production, also following sustainable organic farming methods.
Any surplus produce—as well as produce from Moran' and Klein's plots—will be sold at a farm stand the association is sponsoring at Duke Farms, which will be open Friday through Sunday.
"There are 3,000 to 5,000 people visiting Duke Farms every weekend, so we're really excited about that," Minson said.