Lidzbarski ahead of trend with organic produce

AFP Correspondent

MONROE TOWNSHIP (May 15, 2016) — If he had not served in Vietnam, one of New Jersey’s pioneer organic farmers, Ed Lidzbarski, said he probably wouldn’t have pursued the path he did.
Lidzbarski was raised in Sayreville and eventually settled in the early 1970s in a once-rural part of Monroe Township, where he still lives.
During his three-year tour in Vietnam, he was exposed to chemical warfare that he said made him sick.
“So I started growing vegetables and had a few chickens here, for my own family,” he said. Shortly thereafter, in 1977, he began taking excess produce to the Whole Earth Center in Princeton.
“Finally, the Whole Earth people started saying things like, ‘Why don’t we just come to your farm instead of you coming here all the time?’”
Lidzbarski started his operation part-time, small and manageable. Three decades later, he was growing organic vegetables on Bruce Springsteen’s property in Colts Neck from 2006-13.
After graduating from Sayreville High School in 1966, he took a job in the composing room of the Home News of New Brunswick, then a privately owned daily newspaper. He returned to that job at the newspaper after his service in Vietnam, working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.
While the midnight shift can be exhausting for some people, Lidzbarski said it allowed him a few hours sleep and then time to farm during the day.
“I just wanted to raise food for my family, and all of a sudden organic farming became popular,” said Lidzbarski, 68.
“Nobody was doing organic vegetables back in 1977. At first I was selling out of my garage and later it turned into 20 acres next door, using my neighbor’s property. Eventually the retail end of it got so big, we built a farm market building in 1982 or so,” he said.
“All I was saying was it was organic, no chemicals. The majority of my customers at first were people that personally knew me. Those who got to know me learned I was honest. I would show people what I used for fertilizer. I would take the time to explain to them why it was called organic.”
E-R and Son Farm — E for Ed, R for his wife, Rosalie — was officially launched after he began growing several kinds of fruit and vegetables on the adjacent 20 acres behind his house.
Neighbors became customers and word quickly spread to the point that his wife worked at the farm store they set up in their driveway during the week while he was out in the fields.
“We’d be closed Mondays. We needed a day off to catch our breath,” he said. Son Jeffrey, born in 1977, still farms on land in Cream Ridge in Monmouth County while Ed’s daughter Lynette lives in northern New Jersey.
“We began making good money with my son’s help and we were able to expand the operation,” Ed said.
“I came to this at a point when nobody else was doing it, so I explored all the possibilities. I wasn’t willing to make my business too big, I kept it small by design so we could manage things properly.”
He recalled his first year selling produce in his driveway in the early 1980s, he grew everything he could grow.
“Variety was everything,” he said, “somebody comes in and you only have peppers and tomatoes, they can only buy so many of each. They walk out after spending two dollars. But, we learned, if you have 40 or 50 different things, they’ll buy everything they need and even some things they don’t need!
“You just listen, and your customers tell you where the market is going. Leaf lettuce evolved into salad greens, he said, “and at every turn you just pay attention to what the customers wanted, so you knew where the next move would be.”
Lidzbarski was an early marketer to the first Whole Foods retail store in the state located in Millburn,As his working relationship with the Millburn and West Orange and lower Manhattan Whole Foods outlets evolved, he found he had to grow less variety and more in bulk to accommodate the needs of the store’s produce managers.
“I eventually had to grow less variety and I went down to about a dozen different vegetables,” he said.
Lidzbarski decided to get back into retail via the stand in his driveway and through visits to growing numbers of farmers’ markets around the state.
“The writing was on the wall, so I went into retail,” he said. Through all of this change in the organic produce market, he never stopped selling to the Whole Earth Center in Princeton.
“They were so nice to me and loyal to me initially, I decided I would always bring stuff to that store. I got to be something of a celebrity there, and I would come home and my wife would ask, ‘What are you doing down in that store? You’re down there for four and five hours.’ And I would explain I’m just talking to people and finding out what they wanted.”
Lidzbarski notes with some pride all of the successful organic farmers he had a role in mentoring.
He cited Mike Wilk at Wilk Lamb Farm in Tabernacle, Jim Kinsel and his wife at Honey Brook Farm in Hopewell, who operates a large CSA operation in New Jersey; Rob Flory managing the Howell Living History Farm in Lambertville and Dave Burlew, now running an organic farm in Hawaii.
There is also Grey Tuttle, who was a student at Princeton University, majoring in Asian studies, when he came to work for Lidzbarski.
“I Googled him recently, and now, Grey is a professor of Asian Studies at Harvard University,” Lidzbarski said, “and there are others, so it’s pretty gratifying. But with any of these people, I’m not taking credit for teaching them; their desire to learn far exceeded what they ever learned from me.”