Duke Farms gets new life as model of stewardship

AFP Correspondent

HILLSBOROUGH (April 15, 2017) — Stone pillars flank Duke Drive West’s entrance on Route 206 South just south of Somerville.
The stately mansion was torn down not long ago, but the huge barn now serves as a conference center and restaurant and the heartbeat of the 2,742-acre property.
Michael Catania, executive director of Duke Farm’s Sustainable Agriculture Programs, gave a presentation of the work of the farm before the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey’s annual meeting on March 22.
He said originally the land was divided into 40 farmsteads.
Now the 1,100 acres in cultivation are farmed by six farmers who lease portions of the estate.
Catania said the mission statement of the program is to farm sustainably and to practice good stewardship on the land.
To that end, they have acquired LEED Platinum certification for the barn.
Duke Farms also brought a modified wetland that was tile-drained back to its natural state as a wetland.
“We are demonstrating how to adapt a local farm,” Catania said.
He said after 100 years of soil-depleting practices, Duke farmers are composting and returning carbon to the soil.
“We are married to the environmental mission,” he said.
A herd of Simmental cattle, an ancient breed probably a cross between German and Swiss stock, is raised on rotational grazing.
He said there are 27 head and the farmers are starting a breeding program.
Produce raised on the farm is sold in a weekly farm market, Catania said. “We’ve also done some winter markets,” he added.
Vegetables are also used in the café on site.
In addition, Duke Farms operates a 462-plot community garden. “We are the largest allotment community garden in the U.S.,” he said.
The members of the community garden are required to take classes and do volunteer work around the estate.
Some of the classes involve micro-greens aquaculture and hoop houses, he said.
“We’re working on new crops and new markets,” Catania said, while noting a field of sunflowers appears to be popular with people driving by on Route 206.
He said the sunflowers are being grown for seeds in a project with the Audubon Society.
“It will help the local area as we create good cash crops that are good for the environment,” he said.
One cash crop that may not go on forever at Duke Farms is maple syrup. “It may be dying here,” Catania said. “The season is coming so early. The main run started the last week in January.
“It used to be early March.”