A great place to start investigating how to go organic with your home garden is by visiting the Rodale Insititute. They have been active in researching organic growing methods since 1947.
They can be found at:
The New Jersey Environmental Center also has some great facts and figures on the benefits of organic gardening over more traditional methods. You can visit them at:
Interview with Bruce Marek, Owner and Manager of Old Hook Farm, Emerson, NJ
This is Sam from Bergen SWAN, and I'm sitting here with Bruce Marek, proprietor of Old Hook Farm in Emerson New Jersey, and one of the tour guides on the 2009 Watershed Wide Eco-Tour, hosted by SWAN. The farm has been in Bruce's family for three generations, and operates totally organically, without pesticides or herbicides.
Could you tell us about the timeline of your family working on Old Hook Farm?
My grandfather bought the farm in 1925 as a weekend getaway and rented the farm and farmhouse to a local resident for about 35 years, and they had a large family garden on the property until about 1948. Then my father went to Rutgers, nights, to I guess it was a government-funded agricultural course and he cleared a lot of the fields and had Soil Conservation come in and do contours, and started growing in the greenhouse. From then he passed away in 1973, at which time I had no interest at all in the farm, but from being brought up on it I guess it sunk in, and about 5-8 years later (we continued to farm it for the difference in between) but after about 8 years we opened up the garden center again and got into the growing which is when I became interested in the organic way.
What is the benefit to the environment of your natural approach to farming?
No loose chemicals, no damage to the groundwater. Most chemical fertilizers leech in. Without being so heavy on pest control, you leave more of the natural balance, because even an organic or botanical insecticide can kill some of the balance or lopside it.
What originally inspired you come up with the idea of going completely organic and macrobiotic? That was before this stuff was in vogue.
The organic farming was actually inspired by a pesticide applicator's license. When I got the manual and realized what it was it just seemed like, in my mind or logic, why couldn't you do it with just nothing or, manual methods of weed control. It was hard for me to know what I was talking about, because I didn't know about what botanical pesticides you could use and my biggest problem was finding the products: what fertilizer could you use that wasn't "chemical fertilizer". So one customer was from FND Fertilizer Company, that's a New Jersey fertilizer company and they were focused organically, so I was able to get a person-to-person talk about the fertilizers. It just seemed like I could continue in farming and it wouldn't be as boring as it was to me growing up on the farm, it would be content.
How has the soil on the farm remained so fertile after so many years of use?
It's because the fertilizers are, the same as you would take for your body, some are mineral supplements, some are food supplements, a lot of supplements for microorganisms, as if you would take acidophilus for your body. So in my mind, what you what to allow is for nature to replenish itself, so you have to use cover crop and compost, but the fact that you leave it alone and don't sterilize it, and don't lopside it with chemicals, that's the biggest trick of all.
What is the benefit to consumers of buying organic food products?
Well, opinion sometime doesn't have it that it's much more nutritious, but I believe that because it would be a complete nutrition, it wouldn't be a watered-down nutrition. There would be micronutrients, they can prove that some of the micronutrients can't be absorbed into the plant when they're chemically fertilized, where they are when they're organically fertilized.
Are there health benefits to eating organic produce?
I think it being a complete food, there's things that can go on in your body that doctors might study, but I don't think they truly understand it. I guess that's where my interest in the macrobiotics was: what products do we eat, should you be eating citrus fruits since they're not grown in the area? It's still a debatable question in my mind. The lack of fiber, when you learn about it, you're eating true green vegetables, leafy greens, so you start to understand what true food is, without being a health food.
Since you use no herbicides or pesticides, what are your strategies for keeping your crops and plants healthy naturally?
The pesticides some of it is, when I began, I thought if I lose 20% or 30% of the crop to bugs, wouldn't it be more profitable to plant 20% or 30% more, because then I wouldn't be paying for the cost of pesticide and the labor to apply it. I found out I was wrong because it really require that much more planting. The weedkilling was, I always cultivated as a kid for my father, and a lot of quality of cultivation was timing. You wanted a hot day so that when you lifted up the weeds they shriveled. So the same thing went over into organic, and then you learn about different types of equipment. We use real hoes, which were used 100 years ago, but have been used in Europe ever since. So you find out that quietly, with no gasoline, peacefully you go through and weed your aisles. It required certain patterns of rows in my aisles. Weedkiller always seemed to not work for my father either, you would put it down, it was expensive and it would only work so well.
Is it difficult to keep a balance between making a profit and keeping all of your products organic?
Well, to be honest the farm here in Bergen County could never really be profitable. It becomes like the poster: even when I was a kid it was, they came for the sweet corn that my father grew but he would talk to me about it and he really didn't make enough money to pay for the equipment. It was more that because they came for the corn they would buy the tomatoes. Yes we grew tomatoes for two months, but it was the other tomatoes for two months on each side that you bought in and resold, that was the profit. And the same with the plants, you can grow them yourself, but its actually more profitable to go to a professional wholesaler and buy them and resell them, because theres no loss or chance of loss. Yeah, the organic, it puts you in a smaller, more focused point, so you get what I consider a better clientele, customers coming for many different reasons but they're happy with what you do, what you sell. They still want a good price, but I think they can understand more that it's me, on my knees, weeding or planting. Some people feel very good about it, they like where they put their money because it is local industry, organic agriculture.
Can you tell us about your involvement with the local Council of Agriculture?
The Board of Agriculture I've been involved with for 20 years, and I have to admit I don't do much on it. I show up at the meetings, lately, even that is sometimes only 50% of the meetings per year. Its an ear for me, into Trenton and the State Dept. of Agriculture. It's a camaraderie with other farmers, not that there's that many of us, the majority would be greenhouse growers. You get to talk to some others. My father was more involved, where he was involved with soil conservation and the State Board of Agriculture, he would travel. And part of that memory is him not being home until 10 or 12 at night driving down to Trenton, down to here. I can only offer them so much, I can offer them organic input, which I've always been. I use to feel that the message fell on deaf ears... recently it's falling on more open ears, because it's known now that I wasn't a fool, I was just one of the first ones starting into it.
How can members of the community further support local farmers, outside of buying their products?
Probably the biggest trouble for local farmers is zoning and nuisance operations, where the farmer is so plagued: if he makes a pile of local leaves that he would like to turn into compost, he has the EPA down his throat. This is just observation from stories and hearing farmers with problems. Yet being a resident, you don't want your neighbor to be doing things to ruin their lifestyle. Knowing that they're in favor of what's being done and they're not in favor of townhouses or office buildings or residential housing. Knowing that, then that should transfer into the government attitude, but it's not always that easy.
Do you have any final words of wisdom that you'd like to offer, as a person so passionate about keeping history and tradition alive while preserving the environment?
To people who look at it from the outside, whether it is historic preservation or farm preservation, it should be looked at that the farmer is a businessman, and say if the historical society should want something saved, their whole project and desire should be predicated on "How does the homeowner whose home they want to save profit?" or if it's an estate, how does it work that way? If they want certain things done they should go out and get the financing for it, not strongarm the farmer or the owner of the historic property into doing something that they want. It's a problem that you have to look at from both directions, where sometimes I think I have a better view, because I am a homeowner, a property-owner. I don't want to be dictated to, yet I don't want to see a historic farm or home sold. Basically, it's not that easy. From knowing other farmers and situations that have happened and could happen. So yeah, it's a problem to be worked on.
Yeah, it's a tricky situation. Well, there you have it. That was Bruce Marek. If you haven't been to see Old Hook Farm yet, in Emerson NJ, you should definitely come, it's a great place, lots of awesome produce and all kinds of cool stuff. This is Sam from Bergen SWAN signing off.