Lessons of a lifetime sustain Abe’s Acres
HIGHTSTOWN, N.J. — Young Gabe Siciliano, who carries the torch with his late grandfather and great-grandfather’s passion for farming, takes a Zen-like approach to his vocation.
His great-grandfather, Abe Feldsher, founded the farm, thus its name, Abe’s Acres.
But his grandfather, Joseph Notterman, a psychology professor at Princeton University, taught young Gabe to be philosophical about farm life. Like golf and music, where practitioners rarely do everything perfectly, farming is a Zen-like pursuit, Siciliano said. He calls it Farm Zen.
“No matter what you do in farming, some things are just not going to work out,” said the affable, intense 27-year-old vegetable farmer, who was raised in nearby West Windsor. Gabe Siciliano runs Abe’s Acres, named for his great-grandfather, Abe Feldsher. Siciliano’s grandmother, Rebecca, 94, a retired pediatrician, still lives on the property.
He’s pursuing organic certification and uses fully organic, regenerative soil practices in all his vegetable growing operations.
His grandfather Joseph, who died in 2013, farmed part-time and on weekends for many years on land Siciliano now uses to grow vegetables following organic practices.
“On a farm, so many things are not going to go as planned. If you let every one of those things keep you up at night, you’re done,” he said while sitting in his portable hoop house one hot August day.
Siciliano grows basil, tomatoes, eggplant, beets, turnips, squash, rutabagas, onions, garlic, peppers, lettuces, kale, spinach, radishes and beans here.
He also grows more popular herbs like oregano, dill, rosemary and thyme, “because any small scale farm needs to grow everything that people are going to buy.”
Aside from his grandfather Joseph, he offers high praise to Jessica Neiderer at Chickadee Creek Farm in Pennington.
“I started college at Brandeis University, but in high school I spent almost every weekend and days after school working here with my grandparents,” he said.
“I never thought I would become a farmer. My grandfather had a protracted illness, but I’d never experienced that kind of grief before when he died,” he said. Siciliano was 21 when he died.
“I took stock of what I really wanted out of my life and made a list of things that interested me — versus what other people wanted me to be — and so things that fulfilled me were working outside, growing stuff, building things and more than that being able to not focus on any one thing,” he said.
“In order to be a successful farmer, you have to wear about 40 different hats.” That appealed to him.
“You can express your creativity as well because, at any given time, there’s a lot to juggle. I talked to a few different people and asked what should I do? Should I go to school for this? Some people suggested an apprenticeship on a farm to see if this is actually what you want to do and if you can handle all the work.”
After an apprenticeship at Quail Hill Farm in Amangansett, N.Y., way out on the tip of Long Island, where his parents have a summer house, he said he fell in love with organic farming.
“I loved the farm, loved the work and it really solidified for me that this is the path I wanted to go down,” he said.
He said his decision to leave Brandeis University disappointed his parents at first. The next year he moved back to New Jersey and got an apprenticeship working with Jess Neiderer at Chickadee Creek Farm in Pennington.
“You know Jess: she asks 110% of herself and her employees — and this is not a criticism it’s with all due respect – because she’s a fantastic grower and a compassionate person. So I was very privileged and learned a lot from her.”
Siciliano launched Abe’s Acres, growing vegetables, with a little bit less than two acres, and quickly discovered, “it’s a lot different running your own business and making all your own decisions, rather than just doing what you’re told.”
To be sure, Siciliano loves the creativity, resourcefulness and multitude of hats one must wear to be a farmer.
“You’ve got to do machine maintenance, you’ve got to be a weatherman, a computer technician, you have to know about soil science, how to use a spreadsheet for your business, a bit of hydrology with water pressure, you have to do a lot of different things, salesmanship, advertising, public relations you have to do all of it well.”
“Farming is not a business that has a lot of financial rewards for those that aren’t growing pot,” he argued, “but it is very rewarding in other ways; I know everything I do in the field goes in the service of a greater good — of feeding somebody, and it’s all for something good in the end, so as long as I can make my business sustainable both in the environmental and financial sense, I’m happy.”
He freely admits he got off to a rocky start, but has developed much better relationships with all of his customers. His restaurant customers include Revere Restaurant on Route 29 near Titusville; 12 Farms Restaurant in Hightstown and Cavé, a bistro in Avon-by-the-Sea.
Cavé, he said, “is one of my favorite places to eat. It was very important to me that he became a client. Also, my mom drives out to Montauk every week during the summer and there’s a restaurant out there she hooked me up with.”
Abe’s Acres produce booths can be found at the Yardley, Pa., farmers’ market and a Sunday market at the Carslake Community Center in Bordentown. Siciliano also runs a small CSA program with other businesses that offer his vegetables, cheeses from Cherry Grove Organic Farm, eggs from Cherry Valley pastures and oats and grain products from Scott Morgan’s organic farm in Hillsborough. The CSA he participates in has a pick-up point at the Princeton Shopping Center on North Harrison Street.
Now, three years into launching Abe’s Acres, it appears he will turn a small profit at the end of this season, ahead of schedule.
He credits his parents for their support in his career choice. Gabe’s father is a retired commodities trader and his mother is an attorney who also teaches Medical Ethics at Yeshiva University in the Bronx.
“When my grandfather died I thought about what things can I take away from him. I realized it was to do what fulfills you, and not somebody else. Everything else will fall into place as long as you have that.”
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