By Jane Primerano
In 2010, the Land Conservancy of New Jersey acquired the farm to establish the South Branch Preserve and farming returned to the land in the form of a community garden.
Now a contract with City Green, a Clifton-based non-profit educational organization dedicated to bringing healthy food and farming knowledge to people with little access to either, will bring farming back to a field on the other side of Wolfe Road from the Community Garden the conservancy started six years ago. City Green’s main property is an open space tract purchased by the town of Clifton from the Schulteis family and turned over to City Green.
Sandy Urgo, vice president for land preservation of the Land Conservancy, explained the former Wolfe Farm was slated for a housing development. Roads were begun, two foundations were visible and a detention basin was cut in, but wetlands violations and a mud slide curtailed any development.
The original Wolfe Farm was 208 acres. The Conservancy bought a total of 404 acres, Urgo said. An early Conservancy project was reforestation of several cornfields above the river, planting more than 1,000 trees and installing eight-foot deer fencing to protect the saplings. It also created a trail system through the forest near the river. And a butterfly meadow near the powerlines that run through the property.
Because the fallow fields attracted invasive plants, the Conservancy entered into a partnership with Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary.
Urgo said she knew she wanted to employ goats to take care of the invasives, which include mudwort, mile-a-minute weed and Russian olive as well as multiflora rose. She spoke to a number of “goat people,” and then reached out to Antler Ridge. Kelly Corless, director of Antler Ridge, noted a connection between the two groups. When Urgo was mayor of Roxbury Township, Corless’s husband, Jim Simonetti, was police chief. In addition, Antler Ridge has worked with Dennis Briede, the conservancy’s stewardship manager, on other projects.
“Goats and sheep like different plants,” she commented.
She uses animals she has rescued to control weeds on her 120-acre farm, she said. She and the Land Conservancy team discussed the needs of the preserve and the appetites and grazing methods of each animal in order to choose just what the conservancy needed.
“Animals need jobs,” Corless said. The goats are named Mr. O’Malley and Trouble and the sheep are Screwy, Louie and Dooie, she said.
She explained the Jacob sheep, a heritage breed, like to scratch their horns on vines and large trees, pulling the vines down for easier feeding. Although Antler Ridge deals mainly with wildlife, they take in farm animals in certain circumstances.
Corless created three fenced-off chambers for the animals over a total of four acres. Some of the foliage is very tall so the animals won’t eat everything quickly. They will move from one chamber to another each 30 days until the end of the season.
“We will pull them off in late October and they will winter over at Antler Ridge,” she said.
Corless was glad it didn’t take a lot of paperwork to strike a deal with the conservancy. She said some groups get “tied up in legalese,” she said. “They (the conservancy) don’t get bogged down with lawyers, it was easy working with them.”
Barbara McCloskey is in charge of the community garden for the conservancy.
In its sixth season, the garden has 145 plots, most of which are in use. The cost for residents and members of the conservancy is $35 per plot per year plus a one-time $30 irrigation fee. For non-residents, the annual fee is $45 plus the one-time $30 irrigation fee. Plots are assigned on a first-come, first served basis. Residents don’t get priority she said, but McCloskey has never had to turn anyone away.
This is the only community garden on Land Conservancy property, she said.
“It’s the perfect location,” she said. “It was a farm. The soil was perfect.”
The first year the conservancy offered 69 plots and sold out in three weeks. Many of the gardeners have been on the property all six years, she added.
The garden is surrounded with the fence buried two feet into the ground to keep groundhogs and other burrowing animals from enjoying the produce. On a recent afternoon, Aaron Rosado and Joe Pelley were extending the fence.
“We’re trying to keep the groundhogs out,” Rosado said. “We need a cat for the voles and field mice,” he added, noting they already have the goats and sheep on staff.
Rosado caught a couple of groundhogs in a Have-a-Heart. He believes he didn’t take the first animal far enough away and it returned.
McCloskey said between 60 and 75 percent of the gardeners renew each year. The plots are 10 by 10 feet and no gardener can rent more than three plots because of the amount of work the plots need, she added.
The hoses and hose holders were donated, she said, and the conservancy received a grant from Wal-Mart two years in a row for fencing and the port-a-john.
The conservancy receives volunteer help from several corporations through its Partners for Park initiative. The companies set up a “day of service.”
“Prudential is one of the first to step in every year,” she said, noting they also work at the Grover Cleveland Homestead for the conservancy. Other corporations that send people include Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, BASF and M&M/Mars. The volunteers help with plot maintenance, weed control and wood chipping, usually two days each spring and fall. Toyota sent volunteers to help plant trees.
Most of the plots are taken by individuals or families, but the Girls on the Run chapter at Sandshore School has a plot, McCloskey said. She said the camaraderie among the gardeners is wonderful.
During a tour of the garden, McCloskey pointed out the bluebird and bat boxes along the perimeter fence. She said the boxes and the kiosk that holds land conservancy information were Eagle Scout projects.
Briede oversees the maintenance, she said. He also keeps a list of the bird species people see on the property, McCloskey said.
Extra produce is donated to the food pantries at Christ Episcopal Church and Crossroads Church, both in the township. A volunteer couple weighs and keeps track of the donated food, McCloskey said.
Across Wolfe Road from the community garden is land that will soon be worked by City Green which has mostly operated in Clifton and Paterson.
Jennifer Papa, founder and executive director of City Green, is excited about the new partnership.
City Green’s Clifton property is only 12 acres. The addition of a field in Mt. Olive enables City Green to provide locally grown food to more people in Essex and Passaic counties.
There are already two sheds on the property which is just across Wolfe Road from the Community Garden, Papa said. The Land Conservancy is working on getting permission for a curb cut to provide access, she added. The property is fenced but there is a gate for access to the field.
City Green plans to continue its “double bucks” program which adds value to federal EBT (food stamp) cards. This allows low-income families to spend their food dollars on locally grown produce. They can also use WIC (Women, Infants and Children, a program for pregnant women and their small children) coupons for local items that fall under the WIC guidelines. The low-income consumers can also apply their benefits to CSA shares in New Jersey, which is not common in other states, Papa said.
Another benefit to the larger parcel is variety. Many of the Passaic county consumers look for ethnic vegetables like broccoli rabe and plum tomatoes. Papa said the Mexican community looks for peppers and certain tomatoes. Various Middle Eastern natives look for different eggplants and several potato varieties. The African-American community seeks collards and turnip greens as well as okra, which is problematic for the Clifton property. Okra requires a large amount of space for a small yield and just doesn’t work on a small parcel.
The large field can also be used for more storage crops to increase the growing season.
There is irrigation on the property but it will need to be expanded, Papa said. There is also an eight-foot deer fence which she hopes is enough.
The new farm will have a farm manager and possibly two staffers, Papa said. Other work will be done by evening and weekend volunteers.
“I’m hoping we can start an apprentice program with this new partnership,” she said.