New Jersey Ag News
Brown able to nurture gardening hobby into career
By RICHARD SKELLY
SOUTH BRUNSWICK (May 15, 2016) — Most spring and summer weekends, neighbors and patrons of his farm looking for Mike Brown know not to ring his doorbell, but rather to look in his spacious, plant- and tree-filled backyard to find him.
“I always used to like gardening so I figured why don’t I just combine my passion for gardening and use it during the summertime to make money with it,” Brown said sitting among neatly planted rows of berry bushes and small, starter fruit trees in pots.
Like many beginning small farmers, it took years for him to turn his avocation into his vocation. Or, at least, a part-time vocation.
Brown, a school librarian for Marlboro Township schools in neighboring Monmouth County, is the father of two grown children.
Looking at the front of his house in a suburban neighborhood not far from Route 27, the backyard is a fenced-in area with most passers by unaware of what’s growing in back.
Raised in South Brunswick, he studied Library Science at Rutgers’ School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, where he got his Master’s degree.
Upon graduation in 1979, he lived in Israel for 10 years, where he met his wife. After working a number of library jobs back in the United States in the early 1990s, he said he became a school librarian partly to have summers off so he could devote more attention to growing vegetables in his backyard.
He specializes in growing berries and berry trees and bushes in his backyard in the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick.
“I was playing with different things. A couple of years ago I decided to go more into berries and other small fruits,” Brown said, adding this is the first year he’s not growing any vegetables.
“I’m focusing in on stuff that is not readily available at most garden centers,” he said, gesturing to about one half of his backyard that is a small berry tree nursery while the other half is neatly planted rows of berry vines and bushes.
“Yesterday, I had people come from Staten Island, people come from Long Island and Pennsylvania to buy plants to grow their own berries,” he said. “It’s mostly immigrants, people from the ‘Old Country.’” Brown said his website, Pitsponefarm.com, is how many of his steady customers found him in the first place.
“Things that are not readily available, that’s my niche, so I’ve done a lot of reading and research and shopping around to get an idea of what’s good, what’s bad,” he said. “Nobody has these plants and berries that I sell here.”
He admitted there is a farm in North Jersey that offers you-pick goose berries, but that’s a different market and few farmers in central New Jersey offer both European and American elder berries.
Even though his backyard farm appears neat and tidy to visitors, Brown said after he retires from Marlboro public schools, he’ll get the place into even better shape.
“It doesn’t look as professional as it could,” he said, “but one of my goals is to explore the whole model of a suburban farm. Almost all the acreage around here is ornamental grass. I’m hoping other people will get interested in a suburban farm. There’s no reason why you can’t grow vegetables or your own fruit in your backyard.”
Brown said his front yard and backyard amount to two-thirds of an acre, and with other houses in his neighborhood on similar lot sizes, “there’s no reason you can’t make $10,000 or $15,000 a year. It’s a nice income and one of my goals is to push the envelope on just what a suburban farm can do.”
Brown also produces a slick, four-color, glossy catalog that showcases his crops.
He sells aronia, blackberries, bush cherries, red currants, European and American elderberries, gooseberries, figs, haskap, jostaberries and several varieties of raspberries and strawberries.
“Before I started with berries, I’d never seen a goose berry and I’d never seen an elderberry,” he said, adding his library studies background came in handy as he educated himself while learning by trial and error in his backyard.
“A lot of people want to have their own plants and grow their own fruits,” Brown said of his restaurant and private customers.
He learned years ago the benefit of offering something unique to restaurant owners.
“It’s a good door opener, the figs are, anyway, you go into the restaurant and say, ‘I have fresh figs,’ it’s then a lot easier to say, would you also like some fresh basil, some fresh tomatoes or fresh peppers?”
Why did Brown settle on berry production as his niche?
“Because you can get a good price for them and they’re interesting to me. There are so many different types and they’re nutritious,” he said.
He uses two large freezers in his garage to store excess product, but most years he said he sells out of his specialty berries.
“I started out small and every year I’ve expanded a bit. I’ve been profitable since the beginning and don’t have any overhead,” he said.
“I’m looking into dwarf cherry trees and mulberries. If I find out something doesn’t really sell, I don’t grow it anymore. Aronia has good potential, it’s one of those super anti-oxidant berries.”
Most seasons so far, he said, “I’ve found I don’t have a lot of extra crop. I seem to be able to sell out of each without any problems. If I do have extra, I freeze it.”