Dieker a man wearing many hats
SAYREVILLE — Owner-operator Jim Dieker of Dieker’s Farm here has a broad range of skills as a machinist, welder and mechanic.
He’s also got a great location for his farm stand and adjoining farm, which has been located on one of the oldest roads in the state — Bordentown Avenue — for most of its 115-year existence.
“I learned mechanics from my father Harry, and I worked as a millwright and machinist on the ships in South Amboy for eight years,” said Dieker from the front porch of the 1916 house his grandfather, Charlie Dieker, built on Bordentown Avenue.
“I also worked as a blacksmith for a time down in Englishtown for (famous harness horse racing driver) Herve’ Filion, so I have some trades under my belt.”
“You need to have some mechanical background or skills,” he said in response to a question about people jumping into farming as a second career, “I mean, I have 26 tractors and 40-some pieces of equipment here. To send it out to the shop is often $125 an hour, and for them to come here to fix things is usually $40 extra.” Knowing how to do welding and burning is very necessary, he argued.
The vegetable fields immediately behind his busy retail stand — open seven days a week from May until November — consist of nine acres with a second parcel of eight acres that’s accessible via several suburban streets. When he was 28, after he’d spent eight years working in the South Amboy ship yards honing his skills as a machinist and travelling around the country as a millwright, his father asked him if he’d like to jump in and help run the family farm.
“I had pretty much been raised on the farm anyway, and most of my work on ships tended to be in the wintertime.”
Dieker said 95 percent of the produce he grows on his two parcels of land — divided by a suburban neighborhood that is regularly criss-crossed by his tractors — is sold at his sprawling retail stand. The other five percent goes to a group of area restaurant chefs and owners he works closely with.
Rotating crops on 17 acres of land can be challenging at times, “I double crop and triple crop some things, and we push the soil here pretty hard, so we have to be careful. There are a lot of things that can go wrong and do go wrong.”
He and his foremen, Jacob and Rigo Cruz, grow lettuce, kale, spinach, three types of tomatoes, carrots, several varieties of eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, and a wide range of root vegetables. One thing he does not have space for is corn, but he grows his own corn on nearby leased fields.
“Everything New Jersey is famous for, we grow it here,” Dieker said.
Given he is a third generation farmer and raised in a farm family — his older sisters, now retired, contributed as they could over the years — what advice does Dieker, now 62, have for young farmers or those considering farming as a second career?
“In New Jersey, it’s almost too tough,” he said, “Future Farmers of America is a great, great organization, but they have no way to get these young people property to farm, there’s just no good [affordable] ground left,” other than places converted to preserved farmland.
The 17 remaining acres at Dieker’s Farm was formally put into the state’s Farmland Preservation program in 2008. He said initially, he said there was resistance it the land being accepted because of it’s already urban suroundings.
“Finally I realized I’ve got to try a different approach,” he said. “I went in and studied their whole by-laws and it came down to the fact that the money originally was to be shared among the state’s counties equally. I went down to Trenton and stood up at a meeting and said, ‘I think you better have a look at your own by-laws before you make any kind of decisions.’ One meeting later I got a contract, and that was in 2008.”
He quickly added, “overall, the people at SADC were very nice to me and very good to me, it was just that stumbling around initially to get into the program and be recognized for the need here.”
Northbound lanes of the Garden State Parkway border one part of his farm and close by are busy Routes 35 and 9, not to mention Bordentown Avenue, which becomes Cranbury Road in East Brunswick and Route 535 and Old Trenton Road in neighboring counties. Running as it does from Perth Amboy to Trenton, Route 535 is one of the oldest roads in the state.
“They came in twice with eminent domain and they took the [area that is now] Cheesequake Service area from us,” Dieker said on his front porch, as cars and trucks whizzed by.
“They also took the old homestead where Walmart is on Route 9. We farmed both sides over there,” he said. Both of these eminent domain actions took place while his late father Harry was working the farm.
“They gave my father enough money to pay for a lawyer,” he recalled of the eminent domain payment from the Garden State Parkway Authority, and state Dept. of Transportation.
“They did eminent domain on us four times, so after the second time, you learn enough to take the second offer they give you and walk away. It was 1951 when the Parkway first came through and then they widened it to six lanes in each direction in the early 1970’s.”
Route 9 was a dirt road when his grandfather sold off parcels there that now make up the Gateway Shopping Center. His grandfather Charlie would walk six miles each way over to the South Amboy boat yards to work.
Now, 115 years later, Dieker said, “I more or less farm in the city. This is an urban farm.”
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