Farmer Al’s using diversity to survive

AFP Correspondent

MONROE TOWNSHIP, Middlesex County — Like other small farmers in the state, Farmer Al’s vegetable and flower farm in once-rural Monroe Township has had to adapt to rapid growth in central New Jersey to stay competitive and profitable.
Patricia Jacobsen and her husband Larry, both in their early 70s, own the farm off Route 522.
They own 13 acres but farm on a combined 25 acres with 12 acres of contiguous leased land.
Their son Tom is the operations manager for the farm, yet Pat and her husband live onsite and are accessible to customers at their retail vegetable and flower markets throughout the week.
“Every day is different, every week is different and every day has its own set of challenges,” explained Pat Jacobsen, a graduate of Rider College who taught business education for many years in the Freehold regional school district.
Pat’s grandfather, Alexander Bohinski, came to Jamesburg in 1924 from the coal mines of West Virginia.
“When he came over here from Poland, he always had it in his mind that he would one day have his own farm, because he came from southern Poland,” Jacobsen said.
“He went to work in the coal mines in West Virginia and had six children, and somehow or other — I regret that I didn’t ask more questions when I was younger — he heard about farm land available in New Jersey and then he spent the rest of his life on the farm,” she added.
He had a rather successful dairy farm and grew enough vegetables to take them to Perth Amboy via truck several times each week and sell them at a market there, she said, “and he also had those kids who helped by working out in the fields.
“My father always had an interest in growing things, and even though he had a 9-to-5 job for many years at Engelhard Corp. (in the Iselin section of Woodbridge Township, northern Middlesex County) he turned his avocation into a way to make some money, too and eventually my father decided he wanted to open a farm market, and that evolved into putting a small greenhouse next to the barn and that evolved into the several greenhouses we have today.”
“Our son Tom, 34, is the fourth generation and he is focused on continuing the greenhouses and the farm market,” Jacobsen said. “Now we sell produce from the farm in the barn and we get out to some of the community farmers markets.
“It’s an outlet for us to sell fresh to the consumer,” Jacobsen said, adding that a specialty is plant sales for fundraising by groups that want to raise money that way.
Mums and poinsettias are grown on the farm or in the greenhouses, she said.
Since Bohinski was admittedly a rather cumbersome name to remember, family members decided in the early 1970’s to simply call the facility “Farmer Al’s Market.”
“At that point in time, we did not have greenhouses and my father would sell fresh veggies at work and after he was finished at work, he had a regular list of people that he would see at 3 in the afternoon,” she recalled.
“I was teaching school in the early ’70s, and my husband Larry decided to get us into the greenhouses, so both my father and my husband were still working outside the farm and we got into this by choice, but over time, it grew into a full-time occupation,” Jacobsen said.
Once they were selling flowers and vegetables full-time from their greenhouse operations, it didn’t take long for the Jacobsen’s to realize that to survive, they needed to be diverse, so they sell a full range of cool weather and warmer weather crops as well as a complete line of decorative and landscape flowers.
“The margin of profit in farming, as we all know, is not a big one, and, Mother Nature can change a lot of your plans, so you learn to manage things. That’s why we’ve diversified in the various vegetables we grow,” Jacobsen said, adding she and her husband and son Tom have friendly relationships with all other central New Jersey farmers, “because all the other people doing what we do are really not competition, Mother Nature is our real competition. She can blow your plans out of the water with one dry spell or one hot spell.”
Farmer Al’s sells everything from sweet corn to several varieties of tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, pickles, cucumbers, yellow squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, radishes, dill, basil, parsley, celery, cabbage, broccoli, collard greens and pumpkins.
“We don’t grow blueberries or peaches here but we’ll be selling them,” Jacobsen said.
Most seasons, aside from son Tom who is out minding the fields full-time, the Jacobsen’s also use anywhere from eight to 10 part-time employees to manage the work and help retail customers.
“If you don’t diversify, you’re narrowing your chances for success. It’s like that phrase, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’ well that’s very true in what we do,” she said.