Konopacki keeping Indyk’s Farm in the family

AFP Correspondent

MONROE TOWNSHIP, Middlesex County — New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation program is important to people like Ben Konopacki.
Were it not for this program, it’s possible Konopacki would not be doing what he loves most, and does best, running Indyk’s Farm, situated on Spotswood-Englishtown Road.
Konopacki, born and raised in South River, acquired his uncle Joe Indyk’s farm a few years after Indyk’s death in 2007.
The elder Indyk truly “died with his boots on,” as the cliché goes. It was nephew Ben who discovered him, unresponsive on his tractor, out in the field. Indyk was 89 years old.
That was May 31, 2007.
Konopacki, a 1981 graduate of Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., worked in landscaping for 15 years before his uncle Joe invited him to come work the farm with him in Monroe.
Konopacki joined his uncle in 1997 and has a small house on the tract that he shares with his wife and 10 cats.
“What was funny,” Konopacki says now in retrospect, “was he died on a Friday. On Tuesday of that week, he’s looking through the paper while we’re having coffee in the morning and he’s looking through the obits.
“He closes the paper and says, ‘Good, my name’s not in there!’ Then, three days later, he says, ‘I’ll see you in 10 minutes,’ and those 10 minutes turned into forever.”
But there was a problem: His Uncle Joe left no will and though other relatives knew the plan was for nephew Ben to take over operations at the farm.
“We had nothing in writing. He had just given me the verbal promise that I would continue to take care of the farm ‘when the Lord calls me,’ as my Uncle Joe liked to say. And we weren’t able to find anything in writing, so then I had to purchase the farm, and I spent all my money on that, and didn’t have any money to actually farm,” Konopacki recalled after the estate was finally settled later that year.
Thanks to the state of New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program, a loan from his mother as well as all of his own savings, “you can breathe a little easier and do things the way you want to do them. It gave me a new lease on life — to farm the way I want to, without having to go bankrupt.”
Konopacki added that he never wanted to see any houses put up on his uncle’s farm, “and what I found out by working with my uncle was that I enjoyed the life. It wasn’t so much the money as it was the chance to be working on a farm and enjoying the work.”
Konopacki works with a small crew of good friends who volunteer their time when he needs assistance during busy periods, but for the most part, he tackles everything himself.
Unlike other farming operations scattered around central New Jersey, Indyk’s Farm is 45 acres, all contiguous.
Konopacki grows tomatoes, sweet corn, collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens on the land.
Konopacki’s main spring crop is strawberries which he markets as pick-your-own.
In the fall, collard and mustard greens are a big draw as a lot of transplanted southerners come in search of one of their favorites.
Asked about problems or stumbling blocks unique to his situation, Konopacki said he’s primarily a one-man operation and he battles an out-of-control deer problem on a daily basis.
“Part of the problem here is the deer population is still here and they’re still having little ones, but the housing is constricting them into smaller and smaller areas,” he points out.
Being a one-man operation, he uses friends who volunteer, he adds, noting one friend loves being on a tractor, so he utilizes him when and where he can.
On a walking tour, he shows the greenhouses with collard and mustard green seedlings.
Nearby, there are 16 rows of immaculately planted tomato plants going out at least 50 yards from where he’s standing.
Konopacki reveals he did all that planting by himself.
“When I have to plant the strawberries it’s very labor intensive, so I’ll get a couple of day laborers for a few days to get the job done,” he says.
“I’m still evolving, learning, trying to figure out which is the better money crop and make it viable. And at the same time, you don’t want to over-extend yourself,” he adds.
Thanks to his mother and the state’s Farmland Preservation Program, Indyk’s 45-acre tract will remain a farm, and no more housing will be added to the notoriously under-infrastuctured southern Middlesex County.
Konopacki said he can only hope he is able to continue farming as long as his late, legendary uncle did, even to die on his tractor.
“My mom helped me out and stepped in with some funds, and I gave what I could. With the Farmland Preservation funds, I got half, she got half, and we’re all squared away. This place is paid for, except for the property taxes. There, you’re still a renter!”