Chagnon has CSA booming
SOUTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Depending on how you count, farmer and farm advocate Dave Chagnon has had three or four careers before jumping into farming in 2011.
When he first got out of Middlesex County College, the former East Brunswick High School track star owned a seafood business in Old Bridge for four years.
Then he went to work at Charley’s Uncle, a well-known restaurant in East Brunswick.
He also worked at the Cambridge Inn in Spotswood before working as an electrician.
That evolved into his own home improvement contracting business, which finally led him to his real desire, owning and operating his own farm.
Since forming Fresh Ponds Farm in 2011, when he purchased a home in foreclosure that included a 6 1/2-acre horse farm in South Brunswick, Chagnon has proven himself to be a quick study.
He’s joined New Jersey Farm Bureau and befriended other veteran farmers in the area like Jim Giamarese in East Brunswick, Bob von Thun in South Brunswick and John Hauser in Old Bridge.
Chagnon graduated from East Brunswick High School in 1974, and it was no surprise to learn both of his parents were involved in education.
His mother worked for the local board of education and his father was a school principal in Newark.
On a recent warm April day in one of his open air barns, Chagnon said his degree from the county college is in hotel and restaurant management, yet he is a self-taught carpenter, cabinet maker, plumber and mostly self-taught electrician.
All of these occupational hats come in handy for someone who dares to tackle farming.
“With my construction business, I was mostly self-taught, just like I’m doing here with this farm,” he said.
The saga of Fresh Ponds Farm began over a dozen years ago when he took his wife Joyce to a concert at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.
“When we got back, she said, ‘You know, I would love to have a greenhouse.’ So I built her a greenhouse at our old house on Fresh Ponds Road in East Brunswick. We tried to grow Easter flowers, but we didn’t have ample heat and the bulbs arrived after Easter, so we started in on vegetables and a few years later, we moved out here,” he said of his current location on Selma Drive.
After two years of growing a variety of vegetables successfully, Dave and Joyce launched their CSA in 2013 with just five patrons.
Since then, they’ve continued to make modifications and improvements to their property. In 2019, they had 35 CSA members at Fresh Ponds Farm.
“We’re up to about 35 CSA members and that’s about as much as we can handle,” he said.
“It’s more a sense of community we want to create,” Chagnon said, “so there may be some nights where we have customers hanging around too long, but mainly, we’re happy to talk to all of our customers and my wife bakes cookies and we serve coffee every Thursday evening.”
Chagnon was candid and quick to credit his farming mentors Giamarese, Von Thun and Hauser with help in business planning.
“We planted what we thought we could grow and we quickly learned you can only grow those things that the soil will allow you to grow,” Chagnon said, noting that some of the acreage at Fresh Ponds Farm is low-lying property that can flood easily and all the existing soil was packed down from many years of horses running around.
“Each year we keep adding mulch and chicken and rabbit manure to keep improving the health of the soil.”
The Chagnons grow several varieties of mushrooms in the woods at the back of the property, yet those woods are also a shelter for deer, foxes and coyotes.
In a series of raised beds and a few hoop houses, they grow strawberries, raspberries, flowers and with a few select growing fields, they grow the full gamut of spring, summer and fall crops.
“Everything we grow here goes right into our CSA program,” Chagnon said, noting he and his wife Joyce — who is an executive in the mortgage department at Chase Bank in Jersey City who has been working from home over the last few months — don’t have time or inclination to participate in any of central New Jersey’s farmers’ markets.
From Giamarase, Hauser and others, Chagnon quickly learned the value of networking in vegetable farming, so he’s a member at nearby Tri-County Farmers’ Cooperative in Hightstown.
“I don’t grow blueberries, so I’ll go down there and pick up blueberries from other growers,” he said.
“All of this was new to me, so I knew I had to go to somebody, and I kept running into Jim Giamarese at the pizzeria across Route 130 from here. Thursday was our CSA basket pick-up day, so after a long day, Joyce and I would go over there and we’d see Jim and Sue Giamarese in there a lot. So one night I said to him, ‘Hey, we’re sitting with you tonight.’ I’d known about Jim Giamarese for years, so I began to pick his brain and we became friends. I’d ask him all kinds of questions.”
Chagnon is a spry 63. His wife Joyce handles the website and social media marketing efforts on Facebook for their 20-week CSA season.
Customers come to their home and farm to pick up their produce as their house is the last on a street that ends with a large tract of woods.
Chagron said he’s had to modify his business plan several times since 2013 to transition the low-lying former horse farm into a fully functioning vegetable farm with a few dozen chickens and rabbits.
“We just cleared out another area for some fruit trees. Once it’s where it’s supposed to be, then we’re just going to focus on maintaining it,” he said.
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