2018: The year that was for Hauser Hill
OLD BRIDGE — When a veteran farmer like John Hauser talks of a difficult year, one can only imagine what the rest of the farmers around the Garden State endured this past growing season.
Hauser, whose family has been ensconced on Ticetown Road and Morganville Road in Old Bridge Township for about 150 years, reported revenues from his farm were down about 20 percent this year.
Hauser’s great-grandfather, George Hauser, launched Hauser Hill Farms in the 1860s.
Along with farming challenges, John Hauser had other complications between his farm operations and his Browntown Bus Service, which his father Clarence launched in 1950 as a way to maintain a steady income in years when produce revenues were down.
His sister-in-law, Jeanette, the office manager at Browntown Bus Service, endured several hospitalizations in a battle with cancer and died on Sept. 1.
Strangely, Hauser’s pet emus, two males in a large, fenced-in area in his backyard near the bus company office, died within a week of Jeanette’s death, on same night.
Add to this complications with weather – a raw, rainy spring without much sunshine until June, then heat in August, and then heavy rains in September, October, November and December — and even well-orchestrated operations can suffer.
Hauser said he doesn’t recall seeing three sunny days in September, October and even much of November.
“It was overcast, cloudy and for some reason or another it just shut the plants down,” he said in his office at Browntown Bus Service.
“The plants didn’t die, they just didn’t grow right. This past fall was something nobody could deal with. Something definitely affected our precipitation pattern this fall. It’s rare to get that many rainy days here.”
He said he couldn’t get out and fertilize several of his leased fields. Hauser and his mother, Marie — who still wins blue ribbons for apples she enters at the Middlesex County Fair each year — own about 48 acres of land where he and his crew grow about 36 varieties of apples.
In several hoop houses and on another 300 acres of leased land, they grow a huge variety of vegetables.
Hauser and his crew do three seasons of apples in summer, fall and winter.
“We start picking apples before we start picking tomatoes most years. We begin picking around July 4th, and then we just finished up with winter apples on Nov. 15,” he said, noting that day was also the day of a rogue wet, snowstorm that left many of the state’s drivers paralyzed on highways on their commutes back home.
“It hasn’t even been dry enough to put in my cover crops,” he said. “The rain has been extraordinary. It hasn’t been light showers, it’s been non-stop flood warnings,” Hauser said, noting the only plus side was some of the thousands of apple trees he oversees picked up extra growth, “so we had some big juicy apples this year.”
Asked if he believed global climate change is a factor, he did agree the weather is getting more extreme.
“There are definitely more extremes. The storms are a little stronger and the jet stream has changed here, so we seem to be in more of a rain pattern,” Hauser said.
Hauser’s apple, pear and peach orchards still have irrigation tubing that he and his son and his crew installed six summers ago to save the trees from drought.
“Whatever weather that comes along now, it seems to be a little more extreme and a little more violent,” he said, noting this year was marked in central New Jersey by an early frost that hit Oct. 21.
“In years past, I made it to the first week in November or even mid-November without a killing frost,” he said.
Aside from his wife, Midge, son John and sister Theresa, who looks after the retail farm stand, Hauser employs four farm hands from New Brunswick, a mechanic and a number of high school kids to help at the farm stand in summer months.
“I’ve been able to keep them happy so they haven’t moved on to other places,” he said, “come January and February, we’re starting to prune trees again, and really, without them, I couldn’t get things done.
“We’re out there every day, rain or sun and it gets cold in the wintertime,” he said of his “guys.” Most summer days, Hauser would use his morning hours to drive a bus, emerge to greet his loyal dogs around noon with his trademark quart jug of sugar-free WaWa Green Tea, and then spend afternoons on tasks on the farm.
Were there any bright spots to share from the 2018 season?
“We had a fair crop of apples. We used a lot of apples for cider, we had a good year for peaches and we had good strawberries because of the electric fence. We have battery operated chargers for the fences so we had better deer control this year. We picked more of the vegetables they usually plow right down. We had good harvest periods with a lot of the crops that usually get browsed to death.”
Asked about typical days during spring, summer, fall and winter, Hauser said there are no typical days.
“Even though my love has always been with farming, the buses have been an important tool over the years to finance the farm. But it’s gotten to the point now where the buses are such a financial drain on me, you have to ask yourself, which are you going to eliminate?”
Hauser cited a shortage of bus drivers, increasingly stiff regulations and a myriad of safety checks and licenses, registrations and draining paperwork required to run the bus company.
While he’s all about complying with the myriad of local, county and state regulations to ensure the safety of the children he and his employees transport, if he had to choose one over the other, he would choose the farm.
Hauser said he doesn’t blame the weather so much for this year’s crop yields as he does situational variables like the loss of his office manager and sister-in-law and the labor shortage of CDL certified bus drivers.
“I pretty much self-destructed,” he said, “my attention had to come out of the farm and I had to dig into the buses, doing jobs I hadn’t done before. I wound up driving the bus every day during the summer. As soon as you start doing those things, the farm has to take a back burner.”
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