Success for surrounded family farm

Donaldson Farm’s retail farmstand in the fall.
Photos courtesy of Donaldson Farms.

Greg Donaldson’s on-farm retail market has reached its capacity. Not that it’s too small, but rather that the maximum number of shoppers who visit regularly throughout the season has been reached. That market share has grown over the past 20 years, as the rural countryside has become a suburban oasis surrounding the family’s farmland. However, the neighborhood is built-out and the customer base is now holding steady. Donaldson is seeking alternative venues to keep the farm thriving and is becoming more innovative in reaching consumers, bringing them to the farm for far more than produce.

Donaldson Farms (www.donaldsonfarms.net) is actually three separate businesses, each owned and operated by one of the Donaldson brothers: Greg, Gary and David. David runs the nursery business, with his own on-farm greenhouse and retail building, separate from the produce stand. Gary runs the wholesale produce operation and grows commodity grains. Donaldson, who started it all while in high school, runs the retail farm.

With over 1,000 acres in production between them, on both owned and leased land, the Donaldson family has a large—at least by northwestern New Jersey standards—farm operation. Four hundred acres are planted in produce, and Donaldson and his retail business cultivate about 50 of them.

Donaldson Farms was originally a dairy farm. In 1988, Donaldson had become disillusioned by the life of dairy farming, and decided to plant a small produce garden, selling the vegetables by the side of the road. He quickly discovered he could sell more than he could grow. Recruiting his brothers, and eventually his parents, Donaldson’s makeshift produce stand soon developed into the diverse farm operation it is today. There are no longer any dairy cows, as the family has fully shifted gears.

Working together to grow the farm

Donaldson’s retail operation employs approximately 25 part-time seasonal workers, all from the local community. There is an established Latino population nearby and some of his workers are drawn from it. Others are local students, friends and family.

Donaldson Farms grows peaches, asparagus, peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, apples, lettuce, beans, flowers, peppers, strawberries and melons, along with tomatoes and other common retail crops on the land surrounding the farm store. What he doesn’t grow himself, he buys from Gary, who produces tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet corn on a larger scale.

Aside from purchasing from each other, the brothers also share field workers. Donaldson’s operation only requires a handful of field workers each spring. Gary has several dozen regular field workers, and hires a temporary team using a professional employment services group when harvesting. Donaldson hires some of his brother’s field crew, who work his retail fields in the morning and then harvest Gary’s wholesale crops for the remainder of the day.

The farm has recently started sending produce to the Hunt’s Point Terminal market in New York City. The family has worked toward diversifying operations and being able to enter this market for over two decades, Donaldson said.

“We’re just on the cusp of being able to do this,” he explained. “That was a tough one, getting into a good brokerage house in New York.”

They have just enough volume and consistency to justify the expenses of wholesaling to supermarkets as well. Yet the family can only sell to high-end supermarkets or the expenses don’t justify the gain, Donaldson said. Without receiving a premium from the more exclusive chain stores, who pay more and demand superb quality, selling to the grocery stores just isn’t profitable. The farm also wholesales to other local farm stands.

The farm has the ability to meet third-party auditing requirements, which Donaldson believes are getting to be a problem for many smaller farms. He is outspoken that these regulatory standards “lack common sense.” Small farmers are not going to regain their investment in meeting third-party standards in a higher price, he said, making it impossible for them to compete for these markets.

A packing shed and refrigeration unit are a necessity for the farm. They run a separate washing and packing line just for tomatoes. String beans are in demand, and four years ago the family invested in bean-harvesting equipment, and a special packing line.

“We never could ever hand-pick enough string beans,” Donaldson said. Now, two workers can pick and sort pallets of string beans each day. The cost of the equipment has been offset by the quantity of string bean sales, and the investment has been a smart one.

Other high-tech equipment that helps keep the farm producing include a special solar plastic layer, which puts down the clear plastic needed to heat the soil for early season sweet corn. The farm specializes in sweet corn, with over 100 acres in production, and the family takes pride in offering the earliest and latest sweet corn around. It is known for being some of the tastiest in the area. All of the sweet corn on the farm is hand-picked, and peak yield is about 900 bags per day.

Environmental concerns

“I feel we are the most environmentally active people,” Donaldson said. “I consider myself an environmentalist.”

Several years ago, the family invested in an air-boom sprayer, which allows better crop canopy penetration of any crop protectants used, and has drastically reduced the amount of materials needed. By reducing the amount of inputs and getting a better effectiveness rate, they are farming more economically as well as more ecologically, Donaldson said.

Donaldson has also incorporated a myriad of other environmentally responsible practices on the family farm, including cover-cropping and contour planting, as well as installing numerous gravel-lined drainage basins around the farm to assist in erosion and runoff control, and to protect the aquifers by filtering and returning the water. The farm utilizes drip irrigation to conserve water. They stake the entire tomato crop, keeping the plants high and dry, and disease has not been a concern since they began this practice, Donaldson said. Recorded hawk calls keep destructive birds at bay, and deer feed in strategically planted soybean fields, keeping them out of the main produce crops.

The family has been practicing integrated pest management for years, and believes that soil health is essential. They utilize no-till planting to prevent loss of soil fertility and integrity. GPS systems guide the tractors, preventing overlapping planting rows and reducing the amount of fertilizer being applied. These strategies contribute to a healthy ecological environment on the farm and maximize the crop yield by managing potential stressors in an environmentally responsible manner, Donaldson said.

The Donaldsons also grow their own field crops from seed. This is an economical act, but also cuts down on transport and shipping of materials, so it has an environmental impact as well. It also ensures they have control over the health of their plants, from start to finish.

Pick-your-own strawberry fields attract visitors to the family farm.

One aspect of environmental responsibility on the farm is renewable energy. They have installed solar panels on the roofs of several buildings, but restrictions on how much energy they can sell back to the grid have made it less cost-effective to add more panels, which they would like to do. They could run additional refrigeration units off of the solar energy, but that initial expense is prohibitive. They are also looking into wind energy, but again, the initial capital investment, along with restrictive zoning laws, have thus far made it impossible. What farmers need most are incentives to routinely implement these environmentally friendly, yet initially cost-prohibitive, methods.

“That’s today’s agriculture. Everything is doing things that are making a quality product and are helping the environment,” Donaldson said.

Making a lasting impact

Donaldson contributes to agricultural policy on the local, regional and state levels. He is director, as well as past president, of the New Jersey State Horticultural Society, executive director of the Warren County Board of Agriculture, and president of the New Jersey Small Fruit Council. He routinely speaks at conventions and meetings, and believes that farmers need to better represent themselves politically.

“Farmers are such a small percentage of that voice of agriculture,” he said, while equipment dealers, brokers, food distributors and government agents have more clout. “I try to let them [policy-makers] see my point of view. They need to really listen to what we have to say.”

Diversifying direct-market agriculture

Donaldson Farm’s overall structure ensures that the family’s farm is diversified. The retail component is actively branching out to develop new ways of reaching consumers in order to remain profitable. The large retail on-farm stand, as it now exists, was built in 1991. Open May 1 until Christmas each season, it sells more than just the farm’s own product. It is a full retail venue, with milk and dairy products, jams and jellies, pies and nonlocal produce as well.

While Donaldson is involved in the Northwest Jersey Buy Fresh Buy Local Chapter, he has to sell off-season, nonlocal food to stay in business. He labels his products, so customers realize that the tomatoes available in May are not grown locally, and he further differentiates between Donaldson Farm’s own products and those from other growers, using plenty of signs designed to keep his customers educated.

Donaldson has made the farm into an agritourism venue as well, with pick-your-own strawberries in spring, pumpkins in fall and flowers in the summer. He has a small petting zoo area, along with picnic tables and a grassy space for children to play. He has refused to make the farm a full-scale entertainment venue, though, keeping this a simple place for families to enjoy fresh food, the scenery and some relaxation. His goal is to demonstrate the workings of a real farm by inviting customers onto the farm to see what a productive, sustainable farm looks like, and to do so in a family-friendly, fun manner.

He has recently added school field trips, and even forayed into birthday parties and corporate events. He has hosted local farm and food events at the farm, with catered dinners for 500 people, in conjunction with local nonprofits.

Donaldson is moving in a new direction this year, adding educational tours and cookouts designed for adults, and is planning to host political events and tours to demonstrate the role and reality of local farming to those in public office.

Donaldson Farms strives to be an example of a well-managed farm, nestled in suburbia, which produces a wide variety of food for the local population, works to protect the environment, provides a haven for wildlife, is an oasis of open space and functions to educate visitors by allowing them to see the farm firsthand and to experience agriculture personally.

“It’s so beautiful here. We want to share it with people. We want to show them how it works,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson Farms doesn’t simply grow food. They have given a face and a voice to northern New Jersey farming.

The author is a new freelance contributor based in New Jersey.