Interested in farming in NJ? Rutgers has a beginners program
That’s the name of a three-year beginner’s farming training program that launched in May 2021 at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station last year.
The goal of the program is to provide a path for people who are interested in becoming farmers or who are already new and beginner farmers, to either start or expand their farm business, and be successful in New Jersey.
The program, funded by a USDA grant, is more than just growing plants and crops. It is a business course first.
Year one is an online course where students learn about the particulars of starting and managing a farm business in New Jersey.
Senior Program Coordinator Brendon Pearsall said students learn about policies, regulations, how to deal with municipal zonings, pesticide licensing, environmental regulations, business planning, marketing, how to evaluate soil, and how to find the right farms for what they’re growing.
Year 2 is more about getting experience. Students work on a research farm. They develop marketing, planning, growing, harvesting, and delivering their own farm share, and produce share.
In Year 3, students further develop their business plans and try to get them into a place to work in agriculture either working with an established farmer, buying and leasing land of their own, or if they already have land, helping them to flush out and implement their business plan so they can be more successful, Pearsall said.
The end of August marked the end of the 10 weeks of the students’ community-supported agriculture program (CSA) where students, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s were growing and delivering produce to customers that they sought out themselves, he said.
“Beyond that, even though we finished with our product for the season, we still had produce that was growing out in the fields. Since that point, the students every Saturday have been harvesting what’s out there. It’s a lot of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, green beans, just the stuff that’s left over in the field. It’s all being donated through REPLENISH, which is the Middlesex County Food Bank System,” Pearsall said.
Most of New Jersey’s farmers are approaching the age of about 60. So, a crop of next-generation farmers is needed. In some cases, on farms, there is a next-generation ready to take over the farm but not always, said Bill Hlubik, director of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County.
“We’re going to need to train that next generation of younger people to be able to farm, and continue the tradition of what we’re doing in New Jersey, and learn from the experts,” Hlubik said.
The students in the RU Ready to Farm program bring so much energy and enthusiasm, he added. Many of them don’t come from a farming background. But they come in with fresh ideas. Those fresh ideas, Hlubik said, along with new marketing skills will help them become successful in the future.
“We want to have a bright future for agriculture and that’s the whole intention of the RU Ready to Farm program,” Hlubik added.
Hlubik’s family has a farm in Burlington County and they have been farmers for years. But he said that many people don’t have access to land and don’t have opportunities to start farming right away.
So, this program provides opportunities and provides incubator spaces for farm businesses. Then it works with the students through the complex matters they would have to deal with as a farmer. Also, it helps students locate some space at a reasonable cost so they can get a business of their own up and running, Hlubik said.
About 85 students have been through the program since its inception, he said. Rutgers had to expand the program a few times to accommodate all the students who applied to be in the program. Hlubik said he’s seen a huge interest in the agriculture business in the last 5 to 7 years.
“A lot of people are looking for positive change and looking to do something different, and work with their hands. People, once they get into agriculture, farming, and gardening, they seem to love it. It’s very hard work. But the people who do it and can make a go of it, really enjoy it,” he said.
Good soils combined with good stewardship of the farms, combined with some eager, young students who have a lot of energy and are very creative, makes for a great program, Hlubik said.
The New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station is the reason why this program exists, he said. They are working on some of their areas in phase two of the program. Hlubik said he hopes to have phase three at the Middlesex County Cooperative Extension.
Enrollment for the RU Ready to Farm program begins in April each year, Pearsall said. The first phase of classes begins in mid-May. They run through the summer. Pearsall said it’s a learn-at-your-own-pace program. There are videos, readings, and assignments for the students to do. There are also regular check-ins with the students to answer any questions they may have and to help them with the more complicated topics.
Then, folks who are coming out of the first phase, and who are interested in continuing in the hands-on training, will apply in November. Then, in either January or February, they’ll plan out next year’s CSA program.
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