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Top Story, Nov. 1, 2014

A lifetime in farming the right choice for O’Connell


AFP Correspondent

Bob O’Connell is one of those rare individuals who knew what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life before he was a teenager.
“I’ve been growing pumpkins and other vegetables, really, since I was 12,” he said while walking the fields of his Cheesequake Farm. O’Connell and his wife Linda run the farm, one of the largest farms in Middlesex County, and they oversee two retail produce outlets, one on Route 34 near their residence and another on Route 9, a popular highway with New York-bound commuters.
“We farm just about 400 acres,” O’Connell explained from the driver’s seat of his truck passing rows of several varieties of pumpkins and dozens of rows of peppers and tomatoes.
The work he said, is divided between him and his wife — the couple have no children — they utilized between eight and 10 employees year-round and in the fall, they bring in extra help for their various agritourism attractions such as pick-your-own pumpkins, hay rides and a corn maze.
O’Connell, raised in Matawan and the Somerset section of Franklin Township, took the farm over when he was 19 from an uncle.
“I was going to go to college, but then this opportunity came up,” he said, noting he could have probably gone to work for Rutgers University’s School of Agriculture, Cook College, helping out there with vegetable research and development.
“I could have been retired by now, but we love what we do here,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell took over the nearly 400 acres at Cheesequake Farms in 1976 and said he hasn’t had time to look back since.
He and his wife farm 100 acres on Route 9 and Jake Brown Road, another tract near their house on Route 34 at Cottrell Road that amounts to 240 acres, and finally they look after a 70-acre parcel off of Route 516.
That results in O’Connell and his wife Linda spending a lot of time in their trucks and other vehicles, shuttling from one parcel of land to another.
Thinking back to his farming start in 1976, O’ Connell said he quickly realized he could make a living, particularly through raising pumpkins on parts of his property.
“True, there was a learning curve. We took on greenhouses with bedding plants and Easter flowers and vegetable plants and that helped. We used to ship produce to Hunts Point, but now we retail everything ourselves. Now, our main thing is Halloween and Christmas trees to finish up the year,” he said.
“But Halloween is our main thing, I plant pumpkins on June 10 and plant right up to July 10 or July 15, and we’re on a four-year rotation with the pumpkins,” he explained.
“We’ve had three or four years of dry weather where it was tough, but we’ve always managed to get plenty of vegetables,” O’ Connell said, noting one quantum leap forward was the addition of an irrigation pond on the highest part of the property after they discovered underground springs on one piece of land.
Long pipes run from the irrigation pond to lower parts of the property to ensure proper irrigation for all of his varieties of vegetables and pumpkins.
“I’ve been growing pumpkins for as long as I can remember,” O’Connell said as he stops the truck in the middle of a huge field filled with a huge variety of pumpkins.
Pressed for insights into mistakes and challenges he’s learned from, O’Connell, who keeps a pet pig in his backyard behind his farm house on Route 34, pointed to some fundamental truths about farming.
“Every day is a learning process, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have done a whole lot of things different,” he admitted, adding: “a lot of it is up to the weather, but you create your own good luck as well, by offering a variety of things.” He noted that he’s known for his pumpkins and Cheesequake Farms enjoys a good reputation for its starter vegetable plants for residential backyard gardeners.
“The same varieties we use out on the farm, we sell to the public,” he said.
“These days, I’d say two-thirds of our business is Halloween. It’s a long season.”
In January and February, O’ Connell and his wife take some needed rest down in Florida.
“When we’re here, we’re pretty much non-stop, seven days a week, and if you added up all the weekends, regular working people have more time off than we do. We don’t take off any holidays and we close up around 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve.”
O’Connell, standing in his spacious backyard with pet pig Penelope resting in her pen, reflected on the decision he made all those years ago when he was just 19, and said he has no regrets.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I took it. I was ready to go to college, but I decided to do this instead. And when it comes to getting the job done, everybody here pitches in,” he said of his extended relatives and friends who work at Cheesequake Farms.