Going retail pays off for Van Nuys
HILLSBOROUGH — In New Jersey, the Van Nuys name has a rich history.
Doug Van Nuys’s family immigrated to the state from Amsterdam in the late 1600s, and they’ve farmed the same patch of Jersey land — now known as Hillsboro Farm — since 1865. The operation celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2015, and Hillsborough recognized it for being its oldest business when the township recently celebrated its own 250th anniversary.
But it was an unthinkable tragedy that led to Doug and his wife Lynn taking the farm’s reins.
His father, Martin, and younger brother, Kenny, were loading grain from one storage bin to another in November 1987 and didn’t notice they were moving near a live power line. They were electrocuted and killed.
After the family took many months to recover from their deaths, Doug and his wife Lynn decided to keep the facility going as a grain farm.
Doug said he always had an interest in growing vegetables and after he retired from nearby Ambleside Gardens, a nursery center on Route 206, he began to focus his efforts towards making his now-busy retail farm market a reality.
He said the farm stand evolved over time, organically, based on growing customer demand for fresh fruits, vegetables and baked goods. He began by growing a few pumpkins in the patch.
“Like everybody else, we put out a trailer, then we added a little bit of sweet corn and we put it on a pick-up truck at the end of the driveway, and then it morphed into a covered wagon at the end of the driveway, then it was two wagons, then parking became a hassle because we had so many people coming in,” he said.
Doug and Lynn put up tents in the old horse riding ring on their property and ran the retail operation from there for a decade.
“It got so big and so crazy,” Doug said. “We said once we got to a certain level of business success we have to build a permanent structure. We just have to go to the next level because when you’re in open wagons the quality of the vegetables just deteriorates too quickly in the heat. Heat is the enemy so you have to have some kind of refrigeration or overhead coverage.”
It took Doug, Lynn and their daughters Julie and Kate about five years to put their farm stand in place, owing to Hillsborough Township regulations, “but in their own way, they were supportive of the whole thing, they wanted to see this happen, too, but you had to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s. We went to Farm Credit because nobody’s got this kind of money to put this together, especially on a farm.”
Van Nuys and his wife wanted to have the structure built in 2013 but they didn’t finish the project, which includes a commercial kitchen and several large, walk-in fridges, until 2015.
Fellow farmer John “Buck” Drake, who has a basic outdoor farm stand on his property on Route 206 in Skillman, told New Jersey Farmer last year it was his ambition to eventually build a retail farm market as impressive and expansive as the Van Nuys’ operation, which sells meats, eggs, cheeses, ice cream and assorted dairy products, juices, honey, iced tea, value-added products like cakes and pies, and all manner of vegetables and fruits.
Hillsboro Farm Market is into its sixth year, and local people have remained steadfast in their patronage, Doug said.
Doug said the family has committed themselves to keeping the approximately 180-acre farm viable and profitable. Both daughters come into the commercial kitchen to bake cakes and pastries, in addition to their full-time jobs off the farm. Using leased land nearby, the Van Nuys and a small crew oversee about 400 acres,
Doug said. He points across Hillsborough Road and notes a parcel over there is owned by Jimmy Abma of Abma Farms in Bergen County. The Abma family owns an even busier retail farm market in Bergen County, where there are precious few farms left.
“Here, we do about 200 acres of hay and straw, about 100 acres of soybeans and we’re getting more into sorghum because the deer pressure here is just destroying the crop, so we can’t grow soybeans in a lot of areas anymore which is a problem in this state and everybody knows it by now,” Doug said. “We’re here and we’re in a tough place when it comes to deer.”
He said he’s envious of Jimmy Abma’s immaculate deer fencing with sturdy 8-foot posts surrounding Abma’s vegetable growing operation across the street.
Doug graduated from Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pa. in 1985.
“My degree is in landscape design and ornamental horticulture, which I was actively involved with until I retired five years ago,” he said. He left Ambleside Gardens nursery center in 2015 and has devoted his energies full-time in his retirement to growing vegetables and small fruit.
When his father and brother died “we were 150 dairy head milking and 1,000 acres worth of cropland he said. “We cut that in half because we knew we couldn’t run it efficiently, and we sold the herd of cows off because at that time the money didn’t justify it.”
“I knew we had to put this building up because the only way my farm was going to survive was through retail. It wasn’t in growing soybeans and growing hay, not in this township in this part of the state,” he said.
“And now my store is fairly successful and so we know we were justified in what we did. Lynn and I are retired now, so we’re here full-time now.
“Everything you see out here on these 50 acres goes into the retail store, and when we have extra I take it down to Tri-County Cooperative in Hightstown,” he said.
Julie lives in a house on-site and is basically the chief financial officer for Hillsboro Farm and the bustling retail market, Doug said. His younger daughter Kate lives in another house on the site, he said, “and mom and I have been relegated to the tenant house down the road,” he said, laughing.