Kletts not afraid to fail with enterprise
HOPEWELL — Through their efforts with their recently launched Fairgrown Farm, James Klett and older brother Alex Klett are forging their own path in the world of produce farming.
Farm manager James Klett graduated from Rutgers business school in May 2019, where he minored in agriculture and graduated in three years.
The sharp, clear-headed, expressive Klett has developed a unique CSA program and has combined his business training with his passion for growing produce.
The brothers came up with their own logo and slogan: “Better food, better lives.”
Since there wasn’t one in Hopewell, the opportunisitic brothers created the Hopewell Farmers’ Market in 2019 with a handful of vendors.
James said his fascination with farming began while sitting on the front porch of a house he and his brother share with their father on East Broad Street in Hopewell.
He was 17 when he decided he wanted to become a farmer, he recalled.
“My brother Alex, now my business partner, was renting this cow farm that he converted into a carpenter’s workshop and artists’ studio. He was making refurbished art and restoring furniture,” James said.
When the owners decided they wanted to try vegetable production on a one-acre field, “as a stupid 17-year-old kid, I looked at this field and said, ‘I can do that. I can start farming.’ ”
Four years later, James cringed a bit when recalling his 17-year-old logic.
“I did the math and realized if I grew 500 tomato plants and got 10 pounds a plant, I’d be rich, so I created a business plan in high school and got my five closest friends to join me,” he said.
That summer he and his friends created River Road Gardens on River Road in Montgomery, where he grew up.
“The first season kicked our butts, but for some reason I fell in love with it and I was hooked,” Klett recalled.
By the time he was a senior at Montgomery High School, he knew he was admitted to Rutgers Business School.
James said he was “very fortunate” to attend college in the Garden State while continuing to farm during summers.
“I minored in agriculture, so when I graduated this just became a full-time job for me.”
The brothers launched Fairgrown Farm in September 2018, and James brought his old CSA program ideas to the new operation.
Following organic principles, they manage an 8-acre location off Aunt Molly Road just outside Hopewell Borough and in a second location at Gravity Hill Farm, on Pleasant Valley Road in Titusville, where they have four acres in production.
Alex, who James said is more mechanically inclined, built a hoop house on their land on top of a hill off Aunt Molly Road, where they grow tomatoes and cool and warmer weather crops.
He also set up some irrigation systems and brought a used camper-trailer to the site as a way to escape the elements.
Both brothers worked feverishly with a small crew on Thanksgiving morning, 2018, in 10 degree weather, to install deer fencing for their property at 84 Aunt Molly Road in Hopewell.
While there are now 8 or 10 vendors involved in their Hopewell Farmers’ market, Fair Grown Farm now participates in the Asbury Fresh Farmers’ market on Sundays and the Holmdel Farmers’ Market at the former Bell Labs campus on Wednesdays.
“Given that we might be the closest farm to Hopewell, it certainly made sense for us to start our own market here,” James said, recalling getting the market up and running in 2019.
At the Aunt Molly Road location for Fairgrown Farm, James’ uncle, Ted Klett — a sound engineer, musician and longtime advocate with the organic farmers association, NOFA-NJ — grows vegetables on his own half-acre plot here for Trenton food banks.
What makes Fairgrown Farm unique is their CSA program, something Klett started right after he got his drivers’ license at 17.
“When I started farming at 17 I began with a weekly delivery model and went door to door and sold to people in my community on the idea of weekly fresh deliveries of farm vegetables. That model is something we’ve kept going the past few years.”
During a 20-week season, patrons of Fairgrown Farm’s CSA program get a farmer curated box of in-season produce brought to their front doors “at a specified delivery time every single week.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic arriving in March, James said Fairgrown Farm has increased membership in its CSA program by seven times what it was last year.
As so many New Jerseyans have discovered this past spring and summer, patronizing farm stands, farmers’ markets and even having a CSA box delivered to the front porch is a great way to avoid staying out of crowded supermarkets — many of which restricted their operating hours during the height of the pandemic earlier this year, in March and April.
Asked about the scope of what they grow, Klett said they grow 30 to 40 different kinds of vegetables, a huge variety of heirloom and cherry tomatoes, and mid-summer staple crops including lettuces, kale, cabbage, zucchini and cucumbers.
This past season, they dabbled with blueberries and strawberries at their other location in Titusville.
He said he lost his strawberry crop this May to deer that somehow got inside the fencing at the 50-acre Gravity Hill Farm in Titusville.
“Diversification is really important,” James said, “so that was a failure and there are other crops that I’m not so good at growing right now, but maybe that’s because I haven’t been around a long time.
“When you’re 21, you don’t know everything and you can’t grow everything, especially when you have 30 to 40 different kinds of crops and each one has its own specific growth habits and nutrient requirements.”
So what has James Klett learned in his ambitious five year long farming career?
“When you farm you don’t get hit super hard when you have failures, because they keep happening,” he said. “you just keep getting punched in the face by life.
“So when I lost the strawberries to deer earlier this year, I was able to laugh about it. I knew life was going to keep going.”
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