AmericanFarm.com

Kusers seem to have it all with growing operation

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

CHESTERFIELD TOWNSHIP, N.J. (June 13, 2017) — Larry Kuser of Fernbrook Farm considers himself lucky: By being savvy and creative, he was able to turn his long-standing avocation into his vocation.
Kuser and family oversee a sprawling property in Chesterfield Township in Burlington County that has become an all-in-one complex.
General manager Jeff Tober runs the organic vegetable and fruit operations with a successful CSA, you-pick program and entertaining, thought-provoking newsletters, while Kuser’s wife Susan oversees operations at the on-site bed and breakfast operation and small conference/retreat center.
His son Brian runs the educational programs at Fernbrook Farm, which includes a summer day camp for children as well as hundreds of school children throughout the year on field trips.
A former teacher and educational administrator, Kuser knows how to delegate.
He has been actively running the farm since 1982.
Prior to that, he was a high school math and science teacher at Notre Dame High School in Lawrence Township and from 1976 to 1981 he served as Dean of Students for Princeton Country Day School.
Kuser runs Fernbrook’s nursery operations on one tract of land near a second house he built for himself and his wife, and then pokes his head in a few times each week to meet with Tober and his team.
Kuser went to Cornell University and got his Masters’ in Guidance Psychology from Fordham University but farming goes far back in his heritage.
Kuser Road in nearby Hamilton Township, Mercer County, is named after his great-grandfather.
“My grandfather bought this farm in 1891, but he was not a farmer, he was an engineer,” Kuser said.
“My father was in the brewery business for a while and then he worked for Lenox China in Trenton.
“I grew up here and we always had a big vegetable garden and I loved growing things and being outdoors, so when I was a teacher, I had summers off and I worked with a gal up in Colts Neck who was managing a nursery. The guy who owned it sold it to her. I went to work for her and built her a greenhouse and she taught me to how to propagate plants and introduced me to a lot of premier people in the plant industry,” Kuser said.
Betty Cummins took young Kuser under her wing and by the early 1970’s he was selling his own Christmas trees to supplement his income. That morphed into a full-fledged landscaping business over time and things were going fine until the S&L crisis in 1989.
“In 1981, my third child was born and I made more money that year than my salary as a teacher, so my wife and I said, ‘Let’s see what we can do,’“ Kuser said, noting his wife had Susan had a gift shop in Bordentown.
“I quit my job, we opened up a retail nursery, and we starved to death,” he said. “We had a little bit of income, my mother was supporting us to a certain extent, and then in 1984 we got into the landscape business and that was good through most of the 1980’s. When I started, I didn’t even know people made a living in landscaping, but by 1989, I had 50 some people working for us,” he said, adding his background in business and education helped.
The landscaping end of things fell apart with the banking crisis in 1989-90 and he regrouped and concentrated on just growing plants for landscapers, which has become the nursery operation he now runs.
“Jeff Tober has been a Godsend on this farm, he runs an apprenticeship program here that is second-to-none.”
Tober, who lives offsite in Bordentown, has been with Kuser and Fernbrook since the inception of the organic farm in 2007.
Tober, he added, “was an assistant manager of a CSA up in Amherst, Massachusetts and I conned him to come down here to hot and humid New Jersey.”
After Kuser’s mother died in 1996, he took the big white mansion-style house on the property where she lived and where he grew up and converted it into a bed-and-breakfast facility.
“We do weddings and all kinds of special events and my wife runs all of that very well,” he said, adding his son Brian has worked at Fernbrook the last four years as education coordinator.
“There are a lot of good, smart, creative young people here, young people in their 20’s 30’s and maybe early 40’s who are committed to farming and maybe committing to a farm of their own, so it’s kind of the next generation. The gal we have now as assistant manager of the CSA has a degree in biology and was working in a lab. She had a very good job in a lab but didn’t like working indoors all day, so she has jumped in and taken over as assistant manager of the CSA. She’s one heck of a worker.”
Asked about high points and low points, Kuser said a low point was when he had to fold his landscape business after the S&L crisis in 1989 and the last five years since the Great
Recession of 2009 have not been particularly easy, either.
Bright spots in the business include his bustling agritourism business for school kids and adults and the successful CSA and you pick vegetable operations.
“We’re a wholesale nursery and sell from Maine to Virginia, with between two and three hundred customers and about 400 acres of nursery stock,” he said. A glance through his catalog for the nursery indicates he and his team of about 15 workers grow a wide variety of shrubs, evergreens and deciduous trees.
He credits his wife Susan, with marketing savvy, as the nursery has expanded over the years, “and that’s all based on our marketing initiative, good customer relations.
“Your customer base is critical. We concentrated our efforts on our loyal customer base, and we were able to survive this last recession because we had a good, loyal customer base. These people were loyal and paid their bills.”
Aside from the now-bustling tree and shrubbery operation, Tober has grown Fernbrook’s vegetable CSA program to include 600 families this season.
In 2005 Kuser began a full-time summer camp for kids.
“That first year we had maybe 20 kids and now we’re close to capacity at 100 kids a day,” he said, noting there is competition from other facilities that have swimming pools.
“I like to say we have 50 to 100 kids on this farm, every day, it’s not quite that, but that’s our goal. Our education program is a non-profit, all the money we make on it goes to pay for grounds and staff. My wife and I make our living off the production end of agriculture which is the nursery and the CSA,” he said. “We support my son Brian’s family, Jeff’s family, we support a lot of working families here.”
In the mid-1990’s, still emerging from the near-failure of his landscaping business, he took advantage of money from the state’s Farmland Preservation program to ensure that future generations of his family and thousands of other people may continue to enjoy fresh fruit, vegetables, the nursery operations and the joys of open space at Fernbrook.
“The bottom line for me — because it’s a preserved farm — I think it’s important to share this farm with as many people as possible. Our education program, our summer camps, our CSA and even our weddings and meetings program is all about bringing as many people as possible to this land,” he said.
“It’s about bringing people here to the farm to share everything that this place is.”
Kuser serves on the board of directors for the New Jersey Community Forestry Council, is a past member of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association Board and the Burlington County Board of Agriculture.
He has been an adjunct teacher at Mercer County Community College, Rutgers University School of Continuing Education and the New York Botanical Gardens.
In 2014, he was inducted into the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association’s Hall of Fame.