Wellnitz looking forward to retirement
By RICHARD SKELLY
PLAINSBORO — In his office on Scott’s Corner Road — near New Jersey Audubon’s Plainsboro Nature Preserve — lifelong farmer in Middlesex County Rudy Wellnitz chuckled at the thought that he was born exactly a month before the Great Depression.
He said he was too young to recall all that many hardships from the early years of the worldwide economic downturn.
“My father grew up in Applegarth, a section of Monroe, and he was raised on Longstreet Road, a road that may not even be there anymore.
He came over here from Germany. He was born in 1899 and I was born Sept. 29, 1929.”
After decades growing corn, hay, alfalfa and straw, much of it on the renowned Walker-Gordon Dairy farm, Wellnitz, 86, and entering full retirement, shared some of his farming and life memories with The New Jersey Farmer.
“My dad married Olive Bolles and they had a daughter, my sister Julia, and then they had me. I was a ‘preemie,’ and Pop didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said, smiling. “They had to put me in the oven to keep me warm at times. They’ve called me half-baked ever since.”
When the Walker-Gordon Dairy Farm came into being by 1897 in Plainsboro, Wellnitz said, “they decided they needed complete control over the cows that were making ‘the world’s best milk.’ They moved down here just off Route 1 halfway between New York and Philly, near the railroad tracks.”
Walker-Gordon built a Rotolacter carousel milking parlor in 1930 and increased the size of its herd to 1,650 milking cows, Wellnitz said, and instead of owning the cows, they found out the dairy farmers worked a lot better if they all worked for themselves.
“It was called the world’s finest milk and the story goes that whenever President Roosevelt went overseas, he took a supply of this milk with him.”
“When we were kids we’d go visit the Walker-Gordon facility and bet on which cow would give the most milk,” he said, “the milk was dumped into a stainless steel vat and then it went into a bigger vat and on Sundays this area here would be filled up with cars,” he said, referring to photos in a book about the fabled dairy farm.
Executives at Walker Gordon broke things down into units of 50 cows each and some farmers owned as many as four units.
“My father was a unit farmer and we moved over to a farmhouse on Route 1 and we lived there. My mother had two more children, Bruce my next brother and the youngest one, Eugene.”
Eugene died in a car and bus accident on Route 1 just before his seventh birthday and the tragedy led to a law in New Jersey – and the rest of the country against passing standing school buses.
As the eldest of three brothers, Rudy said he felt like he was expected to help out on the farm, but added he was curious and wanted to help his father.
“I was always helping out on the farm when I was young. My younger brother never had much experience driving stuff but I was operating some vehicles and equipment when I was seven years old. I remember I had an accident when I was seven on a tractor. We had an old two-door Chevy pickup truck and Pop would put it in gear and off I’d go. One day, the thing stalled and I rolled back into a tractor that was right behind me. I was so ashamed, I went up to my room and wouldn’t come down,” he said.
Of course his father forgave him and Rudy continued learning and working on the farm, where his father specialized in growing feed crops for the Walker-Gordon dairy cows.
“When I was driving down a dirt road at that age, from several hundred feet away, it looked like a driver-less truck. We used to get comments about that,” he added, chuckling.
Wellnitz attended Princeton High School located and graduated in 1947.
“I really did expect to go into farming with my dad,” he said. “I was a very average student. After a few years I did take a dairy husbandry short course at Rutgers and after a few months I got an outstanding student award and I won the arm wrestling competition.”
Wellnitz married his wife Betty, on Christmas Day, 1954 and when he turned 21 he became a one-third partner with his father growing hay for the dairy.
After the Walker-Gordon phased out almost all dairy operations in 1971 and sold much of their land to FMC Corporation, Wellnitz worked with the few remaining executives at the company to form JeffWell Farms. Wellnitz was appointed farm manager and continued to grow hay and straw on over 2,000 acres of land in Plainsboro.
“Our acreage gradually diminished and now we’re down to just about 600 acres,” he said, still growing hay and straw for horses and cows.
“I became farm manager in 1975 and stayed on as farm manger until 1995, when I turned 65,” he said. That year, he was elected mayor of Plainsboro serving for one year, since he had been involved in local politics for the previous decade as a Republican committeeman, eventually becoming deputy mayor before becoming mayor. Lenny Schuster took over as farm manager in 1996.
“After I was no longer manager I continued working here and things didn’t really change much, except it was Lenny’s responsibility and not mine. And I must say Lenny Schuster has been patient, and only once did he get tired of my suggestions.”
Wellnitz said both he and his father benefited from a long partnership with the once-mighty Walker-Gordon Dairy.
“It was nice to be associated with Walker-Gordon because through them we were able to buy fertilizer and feed at reduced prices and we always knew, during lean years, there was a check coming.”
Asked about his retirement at the end of November, Wellnitz said he was approaching it with some trepidation. He has been active in the Plainsboro Historical Society and singing in the choir at the First Presbyterian Church of Plainsboro for decades.
After years in a nursing care facility, Wellnitz’s wife Betty died in 2011. Their one son lives in Pennsylvania with his three children and works in the plumbing industry.
“I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do. Mostly what I’ve been doing is tractor work, either planting or mowing or running the baler. I’m also the guy who’s been doing most of the tree trimming, so if the time comes they need some extra help, I’ll do that. I used to love kayaking, maybe I’ll see if I can find a senior kayaking group.”