Locandro: A lifetime in ag education
STOCKTON — Dr. Roger Locandro has spent his entire life in agriculture. Growing up on Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick with a big farm just across the street, how could he not become enamored with farming at a young age? Now a spry 85 years old, Locandro, still works with his son at his farm and nursery near his house in Stockton and helps his partner, Bonnie Merritt, [widower of Cook College’s Richard Merritt,] with her large vegetable and herb garden.
Locandro has so much knowledge — passed down from his farming parents and grandparents as well as former professors and former students — that he could easily put together a couple of books related to the growing and cooking of vegetables, fruits, herbs and how to prepare various types of meat, poultry and seafood. He’s an avid cook, well-versed in hunting, an experienced hiker and is a veteran freshwater and saltwater fisherman.
The New Jersey Farmer met with Locandro in July at his rustic homestead not far from the famous Stockton Inn on Route 29 along the Delaware River in Stockton. His son, Roger, a successful nursery owner, is nearby, right down the wood-lined street with no sidewalks, as is his grandson. Both went to Rutgers.
Dr. Locandro made a name for himself at Cook College for his off-the-beaten path approach to teaching, which combines elements of travel and field work, classroom learning and eating.
“Eat together, learn together,” was Locandro’s motto through the years. His classes usually consisted of Locandro sitting at a desk that was part of a circle with a dozen or more students, no sitting or standing up front and lecturing to the college kids.
Throughout his long career teaching at Cook College, now Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, he ran many educational trips with students.
They would have to save up money for the trips – Locandro arranged for free lodging — and then hand in carefully documented journals, often adorned with photographs and maps, for their final exam in his more popular courses at Cook College.
Sitting in his kitchen and living room, Locandro said farming wasn’t a career choice for him. Rather, he was born into a family of farmers. Born in 1936 and raised in a house at 713 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, “we had our own little farm in that house on Livingston Avenue,” he said, “a very large garden at home with everything under the sun. We have pictures of my mother picking tomatoes with a step-ladder; my father would just let them grow vertical. We grew broccoli, lots of lettuce, peppers, tomatoes a little bit of everything.”
He also had access to a farm across the street in North Brunswick – it was easy to cross Livingston Avenue on foot in those days — and had access to the college farm a short bike ride away.
As if all that weren’t enough to capture a young kid’s mind, daily activities and imagination, “My mother was an Ort, part of the Ort family, and Jacob Ort was my great-grandfather. His family farm was just above Califon. My mother was an Apgar and she married a Sicilian named Rocco Locandro,” he recalled.
“As soon as I was mobile as a child in 1938, we went to my great-grandfather’s farm above Califon and my great grandfather was one of the greatest Dutch farmers you’d ever want to know,” he said, “and that farm still is in operation today.
“I can almost remember the first day of being on my great grandfather’s farm because I have pictures of it. We were up there with my grandmother and grandfather and we were up there two weekends out of three for most of my young life. We would leave on Saturday mornings early and drive up in an old Oldsmobile, get to the farm, and they’d be peeling potatoes and beans and roasting things. At some point my aunt would say, ‘Ok, I’m gonna go get the chickens ready.’ And that meant she went out and caught them, went over to the block behind the farmhouse and chopped their heads off.”
Having picked up the entrepreneurial spirit of so many members of his family who were farmers, the young Roger Locandro began raising chickens and selling eggs. He continued his side business through high school and eventually purchased his first truck with money from his chicken and egg sales and other farm-related endeavors.
“I estimate I raised over 10,000 chickens over time,” he said. “At New Brunswick High School, you came in at 8 in the morning, went to the teacher’s desk and told him you were there. He made a note of it, ‘Locandro is here,’ but on his note pad was another column that was a reminder to him: ‘Roger, chicken and eggs Saturday morning.’ As a junior in high school I bought a brand new Green Chevrolet truck like the one out here in my yard now. Leon, the salesman at Rutgers Chevrolet, was the guy I bought the truck from. He often bought stuff from me, so when he said, ‘How are you going to pay for that?’ I never broke eye contact with him, I paid $1,375, and I paid for it with eggs and chickens. I told him, ‘A lot of your money is in there.’
“After a while, everybody at Rutgers Chevrolet would buy stuff from me and that’s how I made money. Chickens and eggs was how I did it!”
Pressed for more details from his youth in New Brunswick and then-rural North Brunswick, Locandro said his time at New Brunswick High School solidified his vision to go into agricultural education.
“I went into agriculture because there was a Future Farmers of America group at New Brunswick High School,” he recalled. He said while he was still in junior high, he often sat in on agriculture classes his older friends were taking. “I knew back then I was going to be at least a part-time farmer.”
Herb Wright was his most influential teacher at New Brunswick High School, Locandro said. Wright led the FFA chapter and later went on to teach at Cornell University.
“He was my number one influence to get into the academic part of agriculture, because my great-grandfather and grandfather and my uncles were all farmers and businessmen. These are co-evolutionary processes, education and making money farming,” he said.
Locandro graduated from New Brunswick High School in 1954 and already had plans to attend the College of Agriculture at Rutgers,.
“We got a little more sophisticated over time, it became the College of Agriculture,” he said. He didn’t finish his undergraduate degree until 1960, six years later, “because sometime after my sophomore year — we had very small agriculture classes back then the professors became your personal friends; their families were your friends — there were two of them that were favorite people to me. One day, one of them said, ‘Roger, sit down, I want to ask you something. Would you do us a favor and go down to Palmyra High School and teach agriculture for us?”
“I said: ‘What’s it worth?!’”
“They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you.’”
A teacher down there had died suddenly from a heart attack, so the following Monday, Locandro drove his green Chevrolet truck from New Brunswick to Palmyra and back. At that high school, he was the agriculture teacher and FFA advisor. For two-and-a-half years he drove down and back every day and kept up with his own education at Rutgers, eventually deciding to pursue his Master’s and Doctorate degrees there, too. He took another job in Ag education at Freehold High School and again served as an FFA administrator before jumping into a faculty post as the Hunterdon County Agricultural Extension Agent. He moved from New Brunswick to Stockton in the early 1960’s.