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Top Story, June 1, 2016


Niederer perseveres through farm’s growing pains

 

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFB Correspondent

PENNINGTON —
Jess Niederer of Chickadee Creek Farm in Pennington is just now starting to enjoy the fruits of her labors.
Six years ago, things weren’t looking so good for the entrepreneurial Cornell University graduate.  She recalled sitting one day among her rows of vegetables and crying after a groundhog wiped out her freshly planted fall crops. Now, like the chickadee bird her farm is named after, she said her tenaciousness is paying off.
Already recognized last year for her farming work by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Niederer in February was named an Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year at the 60th annual National Outstanding Young Farmers Awards Congress in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Niederer was one of four national winners selected from a group of 10 finalists for the award based on their progress in an agricultural career, soil and water conservation practices installed and contributions to their community, state and nation. The three other national winners were from Connecticut, North Dakota and Washington. The winners received a savings bond from corporate sponsor John Deere and the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. during National Ag Week in 2017.
“As a kid, I wasn’t interested in sports and I wasn’t all that interested in growing things,” Niederer said while standing in one of her greenhouses on 20 acres of land she leases from her father. “I didn’t have a lot of exposure to growing things, what was grown on the farm were field crops, wheat, soybeans and hay. Those were done by my dad on a tractor so there wasn’t a lot need for me or my siblings to be involved.”
But her family did build a horse stable on the property and young Jess was put to work mucking stalls at age 11.
“You don’t need any money when you’re 11, but I got paid 50 cents a horse each day. After a while I got a raise, so I thought it was the best thing in the world,” she said, admitting once she figured out how much her father was making she started lobbying for more raises.
At Cornell University, she studied Conservation Biology. From her study of birds, she learned about the fighting nature of small chickadees, a thought that came to her in naming her farm operation.
“The creek that goes through this farm is the Stoney Brook and I did want to have the name involve the stream somehow, but that name was already taken and I thought about other ways to have water in the name,” Niederer said. “Chickadees were the first bird I caught in college in a mist net. They were amazing, what fighters they were, they have no idea that they are 1-200th the size of a human, and they’re tenacious fighters.”
After spending some months in Nicaragua in college, she said she was struck by the number of people leaving to go work in the United States.
“I decided, after college, I wanted to work with my family, near my family in the place where I was raised,” she said. After graduating early from Cornell in December 2006, she went back to Nicaragua and then came home and started thinking seriously about what she wanted to do.
“I grew up being told by my Dad and a lot of part-time farmers you’re not going to make a living as a farmer. I’m a pragmatic person, it matters to me to be able to make a living so I was interested in places where it looked they like they were making a living. I got a job at Honey Brook Organic Farm, in Pennington, a five minute tractor drive from here,” she said of the farm managed by Jim Kinsell and Sherry Dudas. After working at Honey Brook Farm for two and a half years, she started her own operation in 2010.
“If you’ve worked as your own boss, you have to take care of all the details.  I have never had some crazy financial cushion behind me and the pressure was always on. My college loans are all paid off now, but I didn’t own a tractor until the end of my first year and I probably lost 15 pounds that first year,” she recalled.
Looking back, she said she remembers the stress of that first year on her own.
“I felt like it was all on the line. I’m a smart, flexible person, I’m not too proud to work and I don’t mind waitressing, but this is what I wanted to do and I desperately wanted it to succeed,” she said. “At times, it seemed like one big crisis. Then I realized it’s OK if something doesn’t go right once in a while,” she said,
Starting off in the CSA model, Niederer said she avoided having to borrow from a bank.
“If you don’t owe anybody anything that helps with the stress level,” she said.
One crisis she remembers well from her first year, she had just planted fall crops and a groundhog or team of groundhogs came in and ripped out her seedlings overnight.
“I had a farmer’s market to go to the next day, it was very frustrating, I came back at 2 in the afternoon and the transplants were just frying in the sun,” she said.
But that was before she adopted her five-year-old dog, Tillie, an Australian Shepherd Border Collie mix who now patrols the property for rodents and other pests.
Niederer said by the end of her fourth season she had a pile of data about her business and she could see things were going to work out. She was able to rest easier at night toward the end of 2013, just in time to celebrate her 30th birthday.
Aside from her six days a week on the farm, Niederer also works with the Pennington First Aid /EMS Squad and has been actively attending meetings at the Mercer County Board of Agriculture for six years, as many years as she’s been farming.
Niederer and her crew at Chickadee Creek — which now serves more than 300 CSA shareholders from starting with 10 members in 2010 — grow strawberries, melons, raspberries and blackberries. She also grows leafy greens, chard, kale, spinach, bok choy, tatsoi, arugula, broccoli rabe, various lettuces and Swiss chard.
“We have a road map for the whole year, we do herbs, cilantro, dill, lavender, spinach, summer squash, scallions, garlic, okra, all different  colors of cherry tomatoes, people love the mixed pints with all different colors in there, as well as seedless and seeded watermelons,” she said.
Lately, a lot of the farmers’ markets managers have been finding her, she said, so the main challenge is finding the staff to go out to these markets.
“We do ask people what they want, but the answer you get can really depend on how somebody’s feeling right then, and it might not actually predict what they would buy in a coming year, so we really put a lot of faith in our data,” she said.