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Family sustaining Von Thun market in Princeton

AFP Correspondent

MONMOUTH JUNCTION (June 15, 2014) — Back in 1986, as Robert Von Thun and Robert Von Thun Jr. eased into a transition where his son, Robert Jr., would become the fourth generation to farm the Von Thun’s land off Ridge Road in South Brunswick, both father and son and their families saw changes in the area.
They saw rapid growth and many new residents as high tech and other information economy jobs moved into greater Princeton, which includes nearby South Brunswick Township, home to an IBM facility that once employed hundreds. It is in that urban setting that the farm is located.
At that point in time, Robert Jr. said, they made a few key decisions: To widen the scope of their growing operations and open a retail produce store.
This proved to be a boost for the Von Thun farm, as once rural Ridge Road became a major gateway to nearby Route 1 for people on their way to work in Princeton.
A four lane highway, Route 522, was built as a connecting road to the Route 1 corridor. It is essentially an extension of Ridge Road.
Longtime area residents recall the one lane bridge they had to take on the former Ridge Road to get over the Amtrak railroad tracks and get out to Route 1 in the early and mid-1980’s.
Asked how the transition was made, Robert Jr. said, “For most of the time, my father ran this as a potato and grain farm. I became a partner in 1986, and he continued working with me until he retired in 2004. We began growing all kinds of vegetables and opened up the retail operation then.
“We certainly do a lot of school trips every year, and I guess our fall season with agri-tourism, the pumpkins, the hay rides and apples and all the things that go with that,” Robert Jr. added.
His son Tim just graduated from University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science.
Von Thun’s wife, Cindy, works as a teacher in the Middlesex County Vo-Tech high school in Piscataway, so she’s involved in coordinating school tours and also runs the farm’s website.
Robert Jr. and Cindy’s daughters, Kristie and Kellie are also involved with day-to-day operations at the farm, as are anywhere from 15 to 30 seasonal employees.
Although he “retired” in 2004, Robert Sr. will turn 84 in October and he’s still around to offer advice when needed or make suggestions on how operations may be improved.
“My father is retired, but he lives here in the farm house and he still has input,” said Robert Jr.
Von Thun Farms comprises just about 180 acres, including 80 acres they own themselves and another 100 acres they rent, “scattered around South Brunswick,” Robert Jr. said, and the decision to open a retail operation and expand the range of vegetables offered has proven a good one.
“For several years there in the 1980’s, prices for potatoes were pretty low, and we could see all this development going on in the area at the time, so we thought the retail farm market would be a way to stay viable and profitable,” he explained.
Aside from the vegetable and fruit stand, and “you-pick” strawberry and blueberry options, visitors are also greeted by a menagerie of goats, donkeys, two horses and at least two very friendly dogs, so their retail experience can be enhanced with the nearby “petting zoo.”
“We’ve been doing school trips for over 20 years now,” Robert Jr. continued, “and they can be anything from one trip in one day to as many as eight or ten schools on another day.”
Like other small to mid-size farm managers around the Garden State, Robert Jr. stressed everything is planned in accordance with weather conditions, but recent contracts with Shop-Rite, Wegman’s and Cafferty’s supermarkets helps offset the costs of the rented acres at the farm.
“Like every place, you have to deal with the weather, this year the cool weather is definitely a challenge and things are behind the normal schedule, so that means we’ll have vegetables a bit later,” he said.
Pressed to recall some banner years when revenues were way up, he said, “I don’t know about banner years, every year has its own set of challenges. We try to be diverse with our crops so if one thing is affected by the weather you have something else to fall back on.”