All eyes on Millstone Valley ag documentary
PRINCETON — New Jersey Farm Bureau President Ryck Suydam was among a team of panelists discussing farm-related issues in the Garden State at the premiere of the documentary film, “Farming in the Millstone Valley.”
The 35-minute film, funded through grants and the Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition, documents the history of farming in this part of central New Jersey — between the Delaware Valley and the Raritan Valley — and chronicles the fate of farms and farmers lost to housing and retail development, using mostly a series of historic photos and paintings.
Some original footage of younger farmers, like Rutgers’ SEBS alumnus Alec Gioseffi and his crew at Coop 518, an organic farm on Cherry Valley Road, was included to show how the farming tradition is being carried forward.
“Farming in the Millstone Valley” was screened at the Princeton Garden Theatre, a small theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, to a sold-out crowd in mid-June.
DVD copies of the documentary will be marketed and will be available to download online in coming months, said organizer Brad Fay of the Millstone Valley Preservation Coalition.
The film was produced by Flickering Duck Productions in association with Visionary Video and Filmworks Studios and film makers Fred Frintrup of Milltown, Middlesex County, and Peter Frintrup of Los Angeles.
The father-son team has made a number of historic documentaries, including a film about the New Jersey origins of The Pledge of Allegiance.
After the screening, Fay led a short Q&A as a panel of farmers discussed the current realities of farming in central New Jersey.
Panelists included conventional and organic farmers, including Neil Johnson of the Johnson Farm in Montgomery; Jon McConaughy of the Double Brook Farm and Brick Farm Market and Tavern in Hopewell; Raoul Momo, co-owner of the Terra Momo Restaurant Group in Kingston; Lauren Nagy of Cherry Valley Cooperative Farm in Skillman, and Suydam, a 13th generation farmer in Franklin township, Somerset County.
Suydam said he was impressed with the film.
“You guys did a really good job,” he said. “As my sisters and I grew up, we learned about all this stuff, about how diversified all the farms were in the 1700s and 1800s, and our farm was very diversified for many years and we became very specialized in the 1900s in dairy.
“Americans really want to stay connected to their local farmers and the whole farm-to-table movement is better for our bottom lines,” he said.
Neil Johnson is among the fifth generation of Johnsons on the family farm.
He recalled driving around Montgomery Township with his grandfather as a kid, and his grandfather would point out all the various housing and office park developments that used to be farms.
“Farming is not easy, anywhere, but especially around here with people running you off the road while you’re on the tractor,” he said. “You see how it used to be and how it is now, it’s certainly a challenge. But I’m fortunate my grandfather preserved our land and I’m able to carry on a legacy.
“Our goal on our farm is just to produce the best quality beef and produce that we can.”
Nagy said she and her team at Cherry Valley Cooperative have potluck dinners once a month and a variety of musical events through the year to make the farm accessible and part of the community.
“We’re now on a 97-acre farm in Montgomery that specializes in ecological restoration and education, we produce vegetables, berries, pasture-raised eggs and we also do community education and monthly potluck dinners to bring people out to the farm,” Nagy said. She also holds yoga classes periodically on the farm, as she’s a certified yoga instructor.
“We want to be really transparent and have a direct consumer relationship with the people we are producing food for,” Nagy said.
“A lot of the people that come to us feel disconnected, so one of the things we’re trying to do by opening up the farm is to empower people, to have a garden of your own, and to not give away all your power to the big box grocery stores and the gas pump.”
Restauranteur Raoul Momo started his businesses in New Brunswick, home of Rutgers University’s Cook College, where he went to school.
His Terra Momo restaurant group also owns a small farm where they grow their own vegetables and fruits.
“I think one of the things we learned at Cook College was that food needs to be local,” Momo said.
“I remember one of my professors saying, ‘Why ship tomatoes across the country? They don’t taste as good!’”
Momo’s mother is Italian, and in Italy, “local is just how you eat. My dream is for us to have more farmers and more local production here in central New Jersey.”
“The farmer has one type of produce depending on what time of year it is, and that’s something consumers still need to understand,” Momo said.
“South Jersey is a powerful food producer, and we export a lot of vegetables and fruits from there.”
McConaughy worked in finance for 20 years and has been practicing organic farming in Hopewell for the last 14 years, since 2004, “because I wanted my kids to know where their food came from.”
McConaughy pointed out the main theme of the film is about community.
“The three most important things in life are our food, our air and our water, so we want to make sure we’re protecting those in our community as well. If that local dollar stays here, the community grows,” he said.
In closing, Fay asked panelists what does the future of farming look like in the Millstone Valley and elsewhere around central New Jersey, the Delaware and Raritan Valleys?
“If you look at the food dollars we all spend, there is plenty of money to support local agriculture,” McConaughy said. “There’s not plenty of money to support going to Shop-Rite and buying 99 percent of your stuff from the rest of the world. If you’re spending 20 or 30 percent of your money on local agriculture, I don’t see it going away.”
Asked for his statewide perspective, Suydam, who spends a lot of time traveling to meet with farmers around the state, pointed out the future remains bright for young and up-and-coming farmers of all types.
Suydam noted the Jersey Fresh marketing program is the No. 1 recognized agricultural marketing program in the nation.
He encouraged all members of the audience to join the New Jersey Farm Bureau as associate members and backyard gardeners to stay abreast of legislation that may affect agriculture in the Garden State.
Nestled as it is in between New York and Philadelphia, there’s a huge market for fresh, local produce here in the Garden State, Suydam said.
“People want to know where their food comes from and that’s not going to go away. People will continue to come to farm stands and buy local tomatoes. I went to college in New England, and there was a saying about local eggs up there, they said they were fresher by miles.”
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