New Jersey Ag News
Protinick farm stand thrives with evolution of Dey Road
By RICHARD SKELLY
CRANBURY TOWNSHIP (Sept. 15, 2015) — While the Protinick family has profited from the development boom that went on in and around Princeton in the 1980s and ’90s, and continues to this day, they’re not exactly making a fortune at their farm stand, which is open daily on Dey Road, in season, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
All three generations of Protinick’s are involved at the farm and in helping to run the farm stand.
They include Mike Sr., Mike Jr. “Mickey” and Mike III, as well as Mike Sr.’s wife, Ann. Mike Sr., 95 and his wife Ann, 88, are spry and able-bodied, living testaments to what the farming lifestyle can do for overall health and longevity.
Dey Road in Cranbury, near the Plainsboro and South Brunswick borders, was once a quiet, rural farm road.
Today, it’s a major connector between Route 1 and Route 130 and Exit 8-A of the New Jersey Turnpike.
As a result, business at their farm stand, launched by Ann in 1960, has grown exponentially, particularly on weekends.
Mike Jr. and his son, Mike III, handle most of the day-to-day operations at the farm market, which has good, simple signage on Dey Road and an adequate driveway and parking area to accommodate dozens of cars at a time. At one point in the 1950s and 60s, the Protinick family farmed thousands of acres of potatoes in Cranbury, South Brunswick and Monroe Townships, land composed of sassafrass loam soil that has long been heralded as some of the most fertile farmland in the country.
Much of that land has been lost to office parks and warehouses, yet the Protinick’s, who bought land in southern Middlesex County a few decades after they moved here in 1929, have managed to hang on through the sale and lease of some parcels and by offering a diversity of fruits and vegetables by working with other area farmers.
Mike Sr., 95, was born near Johnstown, Pa. and moved with his family to Riverhead, Long Island in 1919. His father was a potato farmer from Ukraine.
“Because the land got so high priced in Riverhead a few years later, we came out here to Cranbury in 1929, with two horses, right after the stock market crash of October,” the elder Protinick said. Protinick and his father settled on Prospect Plains Road near the Monroe Township border.
“I never did graduate from Hightstown High School,” Mike Sr., said, “’cause I figured, I’m going to be in the farming business, and that was it. I lost interest in school in my junior year.” Mike Sr. has a sister who is 93, said his son, the farm’s manager, is 62 while Mike III is 21.
“I could have gone on to college but I didn’t,” Mike Jr. acknowledged, “because we had a lot of things going on back then in 1970, and even if you wanted it, there was no farming track at Hightstown High School.” Mike Jr. was made a partner in the business in 1970, the year he was graduated.
“When we started farming here in 1929 on Prospect Plains Road, potatoes were 75 cents for a hundred pound bag,” Mike Sr. said, “but the day after Hitler invaded Poland (Sept. 1, 1939) they went up to a dollar-fifty for a hundred pound bag! I always remember that, and that people were really uncertain about what was going to happen with Hitler.”
“Farming during the Depression was very difficult; we had two horses and one walk-behind plow, and I did cauliflower crates when I was in grade school. We used to sell them for 65 cents a crate.”
“Everything has gotten much more competitive,” Mike Jr. argues, “but it’s the good people you meet and the repeat customers that make it all worthwhile. Profit-wise, we’re looking at very slim margins and now you have your Costco’s and other places offering produce.”
Mike Sr.’s wife Ann came out of the house adjacent to the farm stand to sit in the shade on the front lawn. Asked what’s changed through the years, she said the neighborhood has changed completely.
“Housing and industrial development has changed this area, it’s not all farms like it was back in the 1950s and 10 cars would go by on the road all day long,” she said, “I would see each day who went to work in the morning and who came home at night and know when it was time for me to get out of the fields.”
“We used to sell our sweet corn and all kinds of produce at Englishtown Market and we had retired farmers helping us,” Mike Jr. said. 8“We used to sell a ton of produce there when Tony Wilcenski [Sr.] was helping us, ‘cause he could speak Polish to all of these people. But as the labor situation changed, we had to scale back.”
The Protinick’s main crops now are grain, rye, field corn, cauliflower and cabbage.
“There are a whole lot of reasons we had to scale it back. Now, our moneymakers are soybeans, field corn, rye and we still operate this retail stand,” Mike Jr. explained.
Mike Sr. and his wife Ann were married in 1949. They met at a church in Trenton.
“I had farm deferment, even though I did pass my physical test A-1,” Mike Sr., said.
Asked about good and bad years, Mike Jr. said the Protinick Family Farm and Market survived “because of a lot of hard work and taking some chances. We’ve always had our fingers in a lot of stuff and we’ve worked with other farmers to keep ourselves going. You can’t do it all by yourself. It’s just impossible in New Jersey,” he said.
With the retail operation, “we worked along with fellow fine growers because we knew we couldn’t grow everything ourselves,” he said, noting they once did a lot of business with L.J. Smith Farms in East Brunswick and Milltown, who owned apple and peach orchards in those neighboring Middlesex County municipalities.
“We’ve had good years and lousy years. The lousy years were due mostly to poor weather conditions or poor prices on the wholesale end,” Jr. said.
So why do they all continue to work so hard?
“We work this hard because we all love it,” Mike Sr. said, “we’ve been 66 years now in this house at 330 Dey Road.”