Neighbors, friends aid farmer during up-Hill climb

AFP Correspondent

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, Warren County (Feb. 1, 2016) — Robert Hill’s friends know what a generous soul he is.
His more than 100 CSA customers at Witchwood Farm and other friends know he’ll often hand over some new vegetables for free, as long as the recipient agrees to try it and let him know their thoughts.
In recent months, all of Hill’s friends, CSA customers and friends of his CSA customers have come out of the woodwork to be of assistance to Witchwood Farm.
On Nov. 4 on his way to his 12-acre farm on Rt. 31 northbound, Hill got hit at about 6:15 a.m. by a driver in an empty school bus.
He estimated the bus was traveling 50 miles per hour, and his truck was pushed into oncoming traffic on Rt. 31 south of here in Washington.
As anyone who’s been in a serious accident knows, there’s an adrenaline rush at the scene. When the whole thing was over and his truck, two cars and the school bus were towed away, Hill was prepared to walk to his farm, just about a mile up from the highway on Cemetery Hill Road.
“‘No, no, you can’t do that, you have to go to the hospital,’ is what everyone at the scene was saying. So I got in the ambulance and they took me to the hospital in Hackettstown,” Hill recalled at the kitchen table in his on-site bungalow at the farm in early January.
While en route to the hospital, he noticed sharp pains in his left calf and once at the hospital, he began to feel throbbing in the back of his neck. He was treated for whiplash and given some crutches and pain.
Once released later that morning, his wife took him straight to his farm.
“I was more concerned and worried about my animals than I was myself,” Hill admitted, “I had to go check on them.”
“The whole next month I couldn’t do anything [due to the pain in his neck and calf ] and I was just lucky that I had a whole bunch of friends that came out of the woodwork to help me with feeding the animals. One friend of mine still calls every day.”
For Hill, the Nov. 4 bus accident put an emblematic cap on what had already been a year in which he was affected by employees who left suddenly, drought conditions in his area of northwest New Jersey north of Route 78, and a devastating invasion of deer into his vegetable and fruit patches after someone cut his solar-powered deer fence.
Hill, who applies organic practices on his 12-acre farm and saw his CSA customers grow to more than 100 in early 2016, raises meat chickens, heritage breed turkeys, sheep, Berkshire hogs and sells eggs, also grows several vegetables —‚ peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, root crops, carrots, basil, kale, lettuce, arugula, Asian eggplant, and some other off-the-beaten path vegetables.
Hill had two part-time employees including one who lived in a new camper-trailer on the 12-acre farm. She left suddenly, he said, but not before her six-year old son cut the solar powered deer fence, without Hill’s knowledge of course.
The one employee and her son left in June and the other left at the end of July, he said. Later that week in June, “I guess about 50 or 60 deer came in and just gorged on my vegetables. I was left playing catch up the rest of the year.”
“Unfortunately, it took me a couple of days to discover the fence had been cut and I just came in one day and never saw such devastation,” he said.
Complicating matters further was a drought that went through June, July and August in that area of New Jersey, so Hill planted a bunch of other crops that had quick turn-around times and would be ready for CSA customers in September and October.
“I irrigate from a spring and that ran dry so I had limited water supply,” he explained, “here in winter, my spring is still not running, and that’s unheard of, it normally always runs through the winter.”
Needless to say, Hill was forced into a situation where he was working seven days a week starting in August, and he left his wife Anne to look after their home and three dogs in Morris Plains while he spent more time at the farm’s bungalow.
“By August and September, I still had some winter squash and I began growing a lot more 30- and 40-day items like lettuces, mixed greens and radishes,” he said, “and, a lot of other farmers in this area were pretty generous in sharing some of their crops so I could give them to my CSA people every week. That helped a lot.”
Hill didn’t lose many customers and he expects and plans for a full recovery in 2017, assuming his stiff neck and ripped left calf continue to heal.
“The doctor says within six months I should be more or less OK,” he said.
What has Hill learned from his experience and what advice can he offer to other small farmers?
“Basically, anyone who’s going to help me in the future, I’m going to get references from farmers or people that I know very well,” he said.
“I’ll never drive in a car again. If I wasn’t in a big truck, I’d be dead.”
“The financial hardships will take care of themselves as soon as I get a truck, but right now I have tons of meat and no way to deliver it.”
Hill’s wife Anne, who works as a systems analyst at an area health care provider, prefers to let Hill manage the farm himself, but once in a while she’ll come out to help pull weeds.
“Between the animals and vegetables, I can sell meat and eggs all winter and most of the year. I could have sold vegetables all year if I wanted to.”
Hill urges other small farmers who run into a hat trick of bad luck like he did in 2016 to try to stay positive.
“Try to have a plan B. In farming you always have to improvise, and if every farmer who ever had a problem just quit, we’d all be starving. Farmers pretty much have all the same problems.”