AmericanFarm.com

Melendez named new Mercer Co. ag agent

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

TRENTON (Nov. 1, 2015) — In a non-descript office building on Spruce Street in Trenton, in the same parking lot as the Trenton Farmers’ Market, Meredith Melendez, Mercer County ag agent since August, spends her days listening to concerns of county farmers on the phone and via the Internet, and makes sure she gets out into the field a few times each week.
Melendez, who grew vegetables in Manhattan after getting her master’s in environmental conservation and education from New York University, grew up in the Burlington County town of Jacksonville, just south of Columbus.
In high school she worked at a local nursery, thus her lifelong interest in agriculture and horticulture.
She got her undergraduate training in agriculture at Ferrum College in Rocky Mount, Va.
While not many people would associate New York University with agriculture, “it was an amazing program, and with my background in production Ag,” she said. “I ended up teaching high school in Queens for four years.
“There was a three-acre parcel of land that the kids farmed, and the FFA was its own gang, they were all good kids,” she said recently at the Extension Education Center.
She met her husband, Elias, now a produce manager at Wegman’s in Princeton, while growing tomatoes and other vegetables on the rooftop of a grocery store in Manhattan where he was the produce manager at the time.
“I didn’t have any experience with Extension prior to moving back to New Jersey in 2006, “ she said, adding that they wanted to raise their 1-year old son in a more rural place, so they came back to Burlington County and purchased her grandmother’s house.
“We knew somebody had to get a job back here first before we could get back to a more rural lifestyle, so I was asking about work and found out about a county horticulturalist position in Burlington County.”
In 2010, she was hired by the Mercer County Agricultural Extension Service as a senior program coordinator.
On Aug. 1 this year she started her new position as the ag Extension agent for Mercer County.
She pointed out there are impressive agritourism operations in the county between the Lee Turkey Farm, Terhune Orchards, Cherry Grove Organic Farm and other working farms, adding, “but there were also a lot of newer farmers here in 2010 and a number of organic producers as well; it seemed like a place where I would fit in well. I’ve come to know growers in the county through my work with the board of ag and they communicate really well with me.
“That’s how I know if the ideas I come up with jibe with their needs. I didn’t come in here as any kind of be-all and end-all.”
Melendez said there are advantages to having been a staffer in Mercer County before starting the tenure process.
“I’m fortunate that growers communicate well with me about what their needs are. This time of year, grant proposals are due, depending on the agency, and I’m focusing on new and beginning farmers and that’s based on growers letting me know they need help with that,” she said, noting she was working on a regional grant but also works with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and a lot of USDA funding is available as well.
What’s a typical work week like for Melendez in her new post?
“I’m getting e-mails from farmers and certainly still phone calls. This time of year, we get calls from people who want to be new farmers so they want to know what kinds of properties are available,” she said, “and I’m lucky with the team I have with other Extension educators in the state as they’ve been more than happy to lend a hand and get new folks up to speed. I feel very fortunate to work with Ag Extension in New Jersey.”
Melendez said food safety seminars keep her very busy for much of the year.
With as many as 311 farms in Mercer County — granted some of them not typical “working” farms, especially around Princeton, Hopewell, Pennington and other well-to-do areas — Melendez said she anticipates having full daily schedules throughout the year.
“What’s been interesting for me is seeing how some of the newer farmers who were here when I started in 2010 have grown,” she said. “It’s been inspiring to see them grow and of course there’s a flux of new people coming in and other people going to farm in other states, but it’s been nice to grow with them, in a way, and try to be as helpful to them as I possibly can.”
“I get e-mails from growers all year round and the only really quiet week during the year is between Christmas and New Year’s,” Melendez said. “Plus, the only time we can get growers to show up for meetings is during winter months, so we cram in all our meetings all over the state then,” she said, and added, “and we make an effort to hold meetings here, as it makes it easier for Mercer County growers.”
“We have a lot of farmers in Mercer County that participate on a statewide level, whether through the State Board of Agriculture, the Vegetable Growers’ Association or the New Jersey Farm Bureau. All of these groups help make up the voice of agriculture in the state.”