Phillips Farms goes where the buyers are

The quiet, historic, rural town of Milford, N.J., set along the banks of the Delaware River, is home to Phillips Farms. With acreage along the river, as well as in the rolling hills nearby, the farm has several microclimates, making it a good fit for a diversified market farm.


The trellised berry bushes await pruning.
PHOTO BY TAMARA SCULLY.

The former dairy farm has been in the Phillips family for over 200 years. Marc Phillips and his wife, Holly, transformed the farm into a direct sales retail grower of tree fruits, small fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, beginning in the 1980s.

Without a large enough customer base in the surrounding rural areas, and no desire to turn their quiet home and community into an agritourism-focused destination, the Phillips knew they would be taking their product on the road. Today, Phillips Farms travels into New York City, about 60 miles away, up to 12 times each week, to sell at farmers’ markets.

“We go to where the people are,” Phillips said. And it’s not only the high concentration of people that make these urban markets worth the trip. Ethnic diversity, and the desire for people of many cultures to consume their traditional foods, led to the opportunity to grow niche crops. “They tell us what we should be growing,” he added.

The New York City Greenmarket Farmers’ Markets where Phillips sells are all grower-only markets, as is the local Dvoor Farmers’ Market, which is closest to home. All the products he brings must be grown on his farm. This has given his extremely diversified farm an advantage. Not only is the land suitable for a wide range of crops, from orchards on the sloping hillsides to vegetable crops on the flats, it is also home to a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse growing operation, as well as several large refrigerated coolers, specialized storage areas and a packinghouse.

Moving the food

The coolers are all forklift-accessible, and loading docks make packing the fleet of insulated trucks manageable. All crops are packed and put onto pallets, for efficiency, Phillips said, and over the years he has learned how to manipulate the packing to optimize the amount of product each truck holds.

Because not all crops like refrigeration, the farm does not use refrigerated trucks for transport. It is a “quality disadvantage,” Phillips said, to refrigerate certain crops, such as tomatoes. Instead, the insulated trucks are packed with nonrefrigerated items the night before, while the cooler pallets wait until early morning, just before departure, to be loaded.

The farm also has separate storage areas for products such as apples and root crops, where they are kept in the most hospitable environment. Having fresh, high-quality broccoli in December for his late-season markets is something many other vendors don’t offer and sets Phillips Farms apart.


Phillips Farms visits the New York City Greenmarket Farmers’ Markets weekly.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILLIPS FARMS.

Phillips participates in seven markets, some running twice a week. In total, he sets up his market booth 13 times each week from June to November. To further complicate matters, he can’t sell all of his products at every market. For example, at the Friday Union Square Market in Manhattan, he is only permitted to sell blackberries and raspberries. For these markets, or for times when the quantity of product is smaller, Phillips has smaller trucks available for transport.

With over a dozen markets each week, there is a dedicated farm market staff. Phillips and three staff members manage the markets. He maintains complete oversight of the markets, desiring to ensure the best in customer service and sales.

“In the market, we are really known for our huge displays of product,” Phillips said. It is the abundance of each crop along with an attractive display and the great diversity of quality product that keep customers coming back. In addition, Phillips is not afraid to take a risk and will try to grow a new crop or offer it in a different presentation if customer demand is there.

Staffing

While the farm market staff is responsible for sales, the field staff – primarily workers obtained via the H-2A program – keeps things running back at the farm. The farm’s labor force is typically divided up into teams of workers that specialize in different aspects of the farm work. In the fields, a fruit team consists of a dozen employees who are responsible for everything from pruning the trees and berries to thinning the crops and harvesting. The vegetable crew consists of another 20 workers. Machine shop employees keep the equipment running smoothly, and other workers are assigned to the packinghouse and loading the truck or in the greenhouses.

“I’ve got a lot of good help,” Phillips said. “We try to put everybody where their strengths are.”


The Phillips Farms space at the New York City Greenmarket Farmers’ Markets.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILLIPS FARMS.

Phillips Farms owns off-site housing for the workers. The housing is within easy driving distance of the farm, and Phillips provides transportation. This arrangement allows the workers to live where there are services available to them – shopping, banking, restaurants, entertainment venues – which on-farm housing would not allow. Additionally, on-farm housing has limited ability to function as rental income or to be sold in the future if need be. The off-farm housing was the best economic decision for the farm, Phillips said.

Specialty crops

While diversification has helped the farm succeed, Phillips Farms is known for a few crops in particular. Peach season is always popular with the customers, and the 14 acres of peach trees yield a large amount of fruit. However, strawberries are probably the most sought-after crop. The farm’s biggest one-day sales of strawberries was 8,000 quarts sold via three different farmers’ markets.


The orchard on the farm’s sloping fields.
PHOTO BY TAMARA SCULLY.

The 5 acres of strawberries grown here are “very labor-intensive,” so “everybody does strawberries,” Phillips said. “We like to pick every day.”

Customer demand led Phillips to add a variety of culinary herbs to his production. The 4-inch potted herbs are a top seller. The herbs, grown from seed in the greenhouses, appeal to city dwellers with limited outdoor space for a garden. Another crop in great demand is greens. Customers are seeking a variety of greens, such as collards and kale, year-round. The greenhouse is also used to force fruit tree branches into bloom and to grow a variety of annual flowers and perennials for the early spring market season. Phillips also grows greenhouse tomatoes, helping him to be first to market with the crop, long before his field-grown tomatoes are ready for harvest.


PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILLIPS FARMS.

The variety of crops grown on the farm include fennel, celery, Brussels sprouts, beets, cauliflower, scallions, leeks and melons, along with the standard tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, sweet corn, eggplant, green beans, potatoes and summer squash. Storage crops include carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cabbage, parsnips and apples, which are made available throughout the winter months. The farm is also able to offer some value-added products, such as jams.

While most of the farm’s sales come from the farmers’ markets, they do offer a limited selection of pick-your-own crops, as well as a small on-farm market stand for local customers or day-trippers. Pick-your-own crops include blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples, pumpkins, cherries and peaches. They do not focus on promoting this aspect of the farm, as they are “off the beaten path,” parking is a concern, and they wish to retain peace and privacy on the farm.


PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILLIPS FARMS.

Growing methods

Phillips said he is “fanatical about soil nutrition. It has a lot to do with flavors, appearance and overall quality.” He tests his soils frequently and only applies nutrients that the tests indicate are needed.

Irrigation is a mix of drip and overhead systems throughout the farm, while the greenhouses utilize benches, which are flooded with a water/nutrient system. Excess water drains to the sump pump and is recycled back into the tank. There is a filter to contain the sediment, and the water is reused. The greenhouse also has a heated floor propagation area and an overhead drip system for hanging baskets.


PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILLIPS FARMS.

Phillips employs field scouts to search for any insect issues before they become a problem. Integrated pest management allows him to farm as naturally as possible. Pesticide use, he said, is a last resort. He uses crop rotation to maintain soil fertility, decrease disease pressures and disrupt mating patterns, to prevent problems from occurring. However, weed management, pest or disease issues are a part of farming in New Jersey, and sometimes chemical intervention is required. Phillips is proud to be farming in a sustainable manner, and has preserved the farmland so that it can continue to produce food for future generations.

Phillips Farms has been recognized as a New Jersey Century Farm. The next generation is currently in college. For now, the Phillips family and staff are focused on serving local residents and the nearby urban communities by growing and selling high-quality produce year-round direct from their farm.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey.