Balz finds comfortable mixture with eggs, flowers
MONROE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — For veteran central New Jersey vegetable farmer Robert Balz, flowers are a good way to boost profits with a minimum of inputs.
Like many third- and fourth-generation farmers, Balz said he learned the flower craft in his youth from his grandfather.
Over time, the family’s farm evolved into growing more vegetables and selling farm fresh eggs.
At least a half-dozen hoop houses adorn his property and one of them is devoted to growing flowers each spring, many of which are then transferred to nearby fertile fields to be sold as fresh cut flowers at Balz’ new retail stand not far from Englishtown Auction on Englishtown Road.
He opens that stand, weekends only, in May.
Customers who patronize the market for vegetables often buy fresh cut flowers as well, he said.
“The seeds and seedlings are in the greenhouse now,” by late March, he said, “and in May we’ll put many of them into the fields with some black plastic to eliminate the weeds. We go easy on the water and take them from there in pots. If we have extra plants, if it’s a viable plant, we’ll sell the plants, because customers come by that want to plant flowers in their yards.
“When we started out years ago, we had six greenhouses and we were in the flower business. We would sell flats for the spring and then later we would do vegetables in the fields, and we went from flowers to vegetables for a while and by the 1970s we stopped growing flowers to sell for a long time,” he said, “this year will be our first year to sell flower [seedlings] to the public in a long time.”
Competition from other local growers dropped the bottom out of the local market.
By the 1980s with the advent of the Jersey Fresh campaign, he recalled, “we started going up to the market in Highland Park to make some real money up there.”
“Here, we were selling tomatoes three pounds for a dollar, and you can’t make any money that way,” he said. “The wholesale end of selling tomatoes has remained flat. If you drive around in Vineland, every farmer has got a retail road stand now. The old way of doing it with the broker making all the money is out.”
While profit margins are better with the flower seedlings and fresh cut flowers he sells at his market on Englishtown Road, “it’s still a lot of hand work to cut them all. I’m lucky because I have the ladies and they like to cut flowers and they’re good at it,” Balz said.
He has seasonal employees who live in the area and a full-time farm manager, Jonathan, Jonathan’s wife, Maria, as well as Maria’s mother, all of whom help out at both R&K Farm and High Wire Farm, a much larger 55-acre tract of preserved farmland Balz owns on the border of Manalapan and Englishtown.
One of his specialties is multi-colored lisianthus.
“They’re like little roses and they’re very attractive,” he said. “They’re about the prettiest cut flower you can buy around here.”
Balz and his crew also like to grow tall varieties of marigolds, and he noted they can grow all season until a first frost in the fall.
Balz, who worked steadily off the farm as general manager and plant manager at nearby Plant Food Company in Cranbury for decades, now farms full-time in his retirement.
He said he aims to be done selling seedlings at his retail stand by the end of May. He and his wife Karen and their staff will continue to offer fresh cut flowers for patrons through the summer, as they’re a good money maker.
“By the end of May, we’re far too busy just handling and selling produce,” he said.
Popular fresh cut flowers Balz and his staff sell include lisianthus, zinnias, sunflowers, solosea, gladiolas, dahlias, gomfries and later in the season, dried flower wreaths.
“Zinnias are always real popular, I just buy the mixed colors and as long as you keep cutting them they grow more,” he said, noting he relies on nearby Kube-Pak Corp. in Millstone for many seedlings and starter kits.
“We grow some redbeckias, looks kind of like a daisy, they’re nice and they last quite a while, we also grow status, a dried flower that can be used in flower bunches and are very colorful.”
Like a lot of motivated farmers, Balz and his wife Karen and the staff like to try growing something different each season. Last year that was Queen Anne’s Lace and rudebeckia flowers. He estimates he’ll sell between 18 and 20 varieties of flower seedlings this year.
Until last year, Balz and his wife would sell 60 to 70 bunches of fresh cut flowers every Friday at the Highland Park Farmers’ Market. With the opening of their own farm stand on Englishtown Road last summer, they no longer need that retail venture.
“People just love them, and these are dahlias you can plant in your yard and if you plant them the same time you plant potatoes, which would be April, you can cut them all the way up until the first frost,” he said, noting dahlias tend to like more water.
“Dried flowers are nice because at the end of the season, if you’re looking for something to make a couple of extra bucks with, you can make wreaths out of them, using the same wire rings you use for Christmas wreaths,” he said.
“Flowers can be a good thing, but it depends on your location. Highland Park Farmers’ Market was excellent for flowers, with our retail stand by Englishtown, it’s not such a yuppie area,” he said.
“Once your regular vegetable customers realize they don’t have to go to the florist shop and spend $20 each week, and they can get flowers from you for six or seven dollars, it works.”
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