Cheesemaking driving Cherry Grove Farm’s renewal

AFP Correspondent

LAWRENCEVILLE (Jan. 1, 2015) — While the emphasis may be on making organic cheese at Cherry Grove Farm, visitors soon discover the 480-acre farm is much more than a creamery.
Its large farm store sells organic produce, meats and eggs, and customers can see being made, sign up for cheese making classes with master cheese maker Paul Lawler and even go in to the pasture and pet cows.
The farm has been in the Hamill family since 1902, Cherry Grove’s marketing director Kathy Simon and farm manager J.J. Dabbs stated in the conference room of an old farmhouse on the land.
It was a leased farm operation for dairy cows until 12 years ago.
“Then the Hamill family took it back over and wanted to make their own cheese, so it’s been certified organic for about eight years now,” Simon explained.
“And the three brothers are actively involved. I manage the retail marketing, J.J. manages the lower part of the farm here where we have dairy cows and we have another manager on the upper part of the farm who manages the sheep and the laying hens,” Simon added.
Another leased section at Cherry Grove is used to grow organic vegetables.
Asked what prompted the Hamill brothers — Oliver, Samuel and William — to go organic, Simon said simply they were interested in reclaiming the land and ensuring it returned to its original state.
“They want the farm to be the focus, and what we’re doing on the land here, and how we’re trying to reconnect people to their land and knowing where their food comes from.”
Two hundred forty acres of Cherry Grove is pasture and the facility employs about 20 full and part-time employees at the height of the season, Simon said.
“We are a farmstead creamery, so our mission is to make cheese,” she said, noting other leased sections of the farm have cows for beef, pigs, sheep and chickens, all raised on organic food and in free range fields and pens.
“Our focus is local and regional here, so we bring other small food artisans in and sell their products in our store,” Simon said, adding people can buy cheese via the farm’s website
Currently, Simon said, orders come in for cheese from all 50 states and the farm was recently profiled in Wine Spectator Magazine for its fine cheeses.
Patrons can get tours of the cheese making facility and are encouraged to patronize the farm store.
Dabbs said the farm’s location is unique, so close to Princeton, which has has explosive corporate and suburban growth through the 1980s and 1990s, “and what we’re doing is showing that a dairy farm and the other organic farms attached to this land here can actually work here. Twenty years ago, this type of opportunity wasn’t available.”
In spite of the prices on some of the specialty organic items in the farm store, both Dabbs and Simon insist the organic produce is meant for people of all economic backgrounds from the Trenton-New Brunswick corridor, including well-to-do Princeton Borough and Township as well as Lawrence Township and Lawrenceville.
“We really do pull people from the whole area, and we go to farm markets in areas that are not just in upscale areas. The object here is to make good quality food available to people, and not just something only the elite can afford,” Simon said.
Dabbs said he fell in love with farming as a kid and began working on a family farm in Bucks County at 11-years old and he continued to work there through attending Delaware Valley College, finding his niche with cattle and specializing in dairy farming.
Dabbs worked in the environmental field for 15 years after graduating from Delaware Valley College.
He took a break from that and moved to New Mexico for a time.
“Out in New Mexico I started farming for fun and then I started farming for an income and ended up coming back here,” he said, adding, “I always liked the dairy end of it and the farm I worked at in Bucks County was a small dairy and that’s what this place is.”
Simon was raised in southern Burlington County and remembers dozens of dairy farms there when she was growing up, whereas now there are one or two left.
She lived in California and Italy for part of her career, working for a large accounting firm and when she came back to New Jersey, she heard of a marketing opportunity at Cherry Grove Farm.
“I was surrounded by people making their own cheese and making their own food products and when I came back I didn’t want to do corporate things anymore,” she said. “Through a friend I found out they were looking for someone to do retail and marketing here.
“It’s just so much more satisfying to come in to a job like this and apply what you’ve learned in a corporate setting to something you truly care about.”