Belle Mead Co-Op marking centennial
HILLSBOROUGH TOWNSHIP — Patronized by big and small farmers, backyard fruit and vegetable growers, and home owners with pets for decades, the Belle Mead Co-Op will celebrate its centennial this year.
Founded on Oct. 4, 1920 by more than a dozen central New Jersey farmers, the supply store has evolved over time — like all ag businesses in the Garden State — to reflect changing tastes, demographics and trends.
Cortney Huber, the newly appointed general manager at the co-op, talked about the co-op’s mission, products and changing customer base.
The co-op is still owned by descendants of the farmers who launched it.
“We still make our own feed and have a mill that runs five days a week,” Huber said.
This is what makes the cooperative unique, he said.
“I don’t know how many other places in the state still have a running feed mill. I know Lane Farms on the other side of Hillsborough still makes feed and there may be a couple of other places, but we’ve been doing this here forever.”
“We do custom blend feeds we make for farmers, one or two tons at a time, so if somebody has something specific they want, we’ll make up a recipe for them,” he said. The cooperative sells feed for cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys and any other kinds of poultry.
Huber learned on-the-job skills from the ground up.
He started working here in 2001 as a yard hand, loading bags into customers’ cars and onto farmers’ trucks.
He went to Hillsborough High School and majored in Sociology at Stockton State University.
After working in the social services field a number of months right after graduation from Stockton in 2000, he decided to make a switch and work outdoors instead.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do and landed here on a whim in 2001,” he recalled, noting he’d always had an interest in landscaping.
Needless to say, he uses his sociology and applied psychology skills to help confused backyard vegetable growers and the occasionally confused farmer.
“I was a yard hand for a short period of time and then became a driver for year and a half, and then (previous General Manager) Kevin Lyon, promoted me to an assistant manager.” Huber served as an assistant manager for many years and was appointed GM in the fall of 2019.
Aside from addressing the needs of livestock farmers with custom-blended feeds, the cooperative sells everything for the lawn and garden: chemicals, tools, shovels, soil amendments, mulches, bulk landscape supplies, grass seed, nursery plants, stock, annuals, perennials, starter vegetable plants, all varieties of pet foods, bird seed, bird baths, feeders and houses and canning supplies.
Depending on the size of the orders, the cooperative still offers local delivery within parts of Somerset, Mercer and Hunterdon counties.
“We get a good number of farmers in here but a lot of our business now comes from homeowners,” Huber said, “we certainly do supply farmers with feed, a bit of fertilizer, and the really big farmers are getting their fertilizers in bulk.”
Huber was quick to credit his two expert custom-feed mixers, two gentlemen who work five days a week at the facility, Bill Wilkins and Chris Eannucci.
The property at Belle Mead Co-Op encompasses some old railroad tracks and extends in another direction to a nearby field filled with bulk bins of landscaper materials.
Several hoop houses are filled with thousands of vegetable seedlings in the springtime, and of course, the cooperative also carries all manner of deer fencing, vegetable garden fencing, animal cages, rabbit hutches and dog houses.
Its spacious yard is also filled with all kinds of decorative stone, mulches and top soil. An original fertilizer barn at the front of the facility was built to be close to the railroad tracks for ease of loading and unloading.
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