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Top Story, July 15, 2014
Etsch Farms thriving with multiple generations
By RICHARD SKELLY
MONROE TOWNSHIP, Middlesex County — Even though he runs a larger farm by Garden State standards — overseeing corn, hay and straw operations on 1,100 acres of land scattered across five central New Jersey municipalities.
Jim Etsch, who runs Etsch Farms, says the operation is not too big to be diverse.
Thus, a corn maze, a soybean maze, a you-pick pumpkin patch, and other agri-tourism operations get under way at Etsch Farms every fall.
More recently, Jim’s mother, Mary, who still lives on the property with his father, Roy, a former mayor of Monroe Township, sells a variety of baked goods, locally-layed eggs and local honey from a hut at the front of a long driveway.
“When I came back right out of college to work here full-time, I started the retail hay business,” said Jim, a 1981 graduate of Cook College, Rutgers University. “We were strictly corn and soybeans before that. There were some dry months that year and the hay and straw business smoothed everything out.”
Similarly, the annual corn maze and rides for kids through the other mazes set up each fall help with revenues, as does Etsch’s retail hay business. When Superstorm Sandy hit central New Jersey on Oct. 29 and 30, 2012, Etsch Farms lost its last weekend of the maze season.
“That hurt us and there’s nothing you can do about it, that’s the difference between here and corporate America. In corporate America they can plan five years out, but you can’t really do that in farming. We’re price takers, not price givers,” Etsch said.
“I would love to have eight dollar corn again this year, and right now if that four-fifty or five dollar corn — if it drops much below four dollars — I’m going to lose money this year. That’s one of the reasons we diversify.”
Jim’s wife Caroline oversees much of the accounting, school trips and the farm’s website, but she’s also out in the fields a great deal, as well as in the kitchen, producing the baked goods Mary sells from the farm’s Bakery Barn and Donut Shack. The farm needs a bookkeeper, she argued, and while revenue streams can be reasonably healthy some years, everything is weather-dependent.
When Etsch retires in two decades, his son Peter plans to take over, Jim said, marking their fourth generation to operate the farm in Monroe Township. In 2015, Peter expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in crop science from Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa.
Etsch’s grandfather moved out to Monroe in 1931 from Queens, N.Y., at the height of the Great Depression, after a highway was built through their property there.
“I worked here my whole time through Cook College and always planned to come back and work here,” Jim said on a short tour of the 15 acres off Route 522 where the offices are located.
“At the time we were grain and partial vegetables. The horse industry in New Jersey was huge in the 1980’s so I got us more into the retail hay operations and that worked up to be fifty percent of our business back then.”
In the 1990’s, Jim and his father started losing land to rapid development in once-rural Monroe Township and other surrounding towns.
Since they rent close to 95 percent of what they farm, they picked up fields of varying sizes in other towns, including South Brunswick, East Brunswick, Old Bridge and Manalapan.
“It’s a lot more complicated than it was in the 1950s. What we’re farming now in the 1950s was 27 separate farms. Our biggest field is 120 acres and our smallest is four,” he said.
The school trips and annual autumn corn maze draw visitors to the farm. The corn and other mazes were launched eight years ago.
“We saw the dive in our horse hay sales and retail hay sales, that all happened around the Depression of ’08, when we took a 50-percent drop in hay sales. That took a big chunk out of our operations and meanwhile, we knew all these people were moving into this area, so my wife thought, ‘Let’s educate them as to why open space is important and why farming is important.’ Those were all my wife’s initiatives.”
During the season, Etsch employs three full and two part-timers but during the fall maze season, he uses as many as 28 part-timers, mostly high school kids, for the maze operations on Saturdays and Sundays.
“The amount of people we have in Monroe is a customer base and also a chance to educate them about what we do. Once they’re here and they see how we operate, what it all involves, very few people here are opposed to us,” he said, noting in his own attempts to be a good neighbor to a nearby Toll Brothers adult community, he doesn’t run his noisy grain dryer all night long.
Etsch’s farm is a no-till operation and he grows GMO crops, “so we’ve cut back on soil erosion by going to no-till and by going to GMO crops. We’ve cut our insecticide and herbicide bills tremendously, too. I probably wouldn’t be in this business if it wasn’t for modern technologies.”