Marien not phoning it in with NavTan certification
MARLBORO TOWNSHIP, N.J. — If all goes according to plan at NavTan Farms, farmer Geert Marien will be Certified Organic after three years. He’ll also be selling a variety of ethnic crops at his farm stand.
Marien lives on a suburban cul-de-sac nearby with his wife, Pratima Athawale.
He worked for AT&T for two decades before taking a buyout, and she works for IBM at offices in Middletown, N.J., while helping out with the market on the weekends. They have two children, one in college, one just out of college.
“I worked for AT&T for almost 20 years,” he said on a recent Sunday afternoon. “They were downsizing and I was one of many many people who took a buyout package.”
Marien was born in the Netherlands but raised in Queens, N.Y., and met Prathima while they were attending Queens College, he said.
“I needed to do something with less stress,” he said, chuckling, “so I chose farming. It’s not any less stress, but it’s different. The idea was I would be a market gardener in the beginning, but things happened quickly and we ended up here on a 10-acre property instead of a one acre property.”
“My original idea was to grow vegetables on an acre and do it wholesale,” he said, noting he and his wife starting farming in earnest in 2017, before he left AT&T.
“We used parts of our backyard to grow vegetables with raised beds, but right now we’re not really doing anything with our raised beds because we want to be organic,” he said.
Marien said he and his wife started slowly, growing okra, carrots and cucumbers on raised beds in their backyard, but stopped when they realized zoning restrictions would prevent them from doing the level of production they can do on their acreage off Tennent Road.
The plan is to be growing and selling more organic ethnic vegetables, including Chinese cabbage, cilantro, shiso and Indian eggplant, he added. They also want to increase their ethnic crops to include about 10 to 12 Indian vegetables “but they’re really hard to grow. They’re so susceptible to diseases, even in this environment,” he said.
Their CSA program has 20 customers and customers are free to design their own packages of vegetables from week to week.
“We’re not putting it in the box ahead of time except if we can reserve something for them,” he said, “and customers are offered over 20 different items to choose from. So our Indian customers will choose cilantro and ginger and our Caribbean customers will choose ginger and we have a couple of real Italian families in the program, so they’re always after basil and plum tomatoes.”
“Within three to four years, we hope to be organically growing all these things and selling them here at the farm stand.”
Deer are a major problem, both on the cul-de-sac where he lives and on the nearby farm on Tennent Road where he leases land.
“You have to use a certain kind of fishing line so the deer don’t see it. They walk into it, and it doesn’t have to be that high, they can’t tell how high it is, and smart as they are, they want to know when they land on the other side, they’ll be safe,” he said.
“We’ve done fishing line deer fences in the backyard and over here in various fields where we’re growing stuff,” he said, noting the owner, a paving contractor, is “very supportive of farming and organic farming. There were other farmers here before and they were growing tomatoes, radishes and squash, and they left the property and didn’t really amend the soil much, so we have very sandy soil, so it’s probably going to be another two or three years before we get enough organic matter on this acreage here.”
Marien credited Erich Bremer from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture with helping them in the organic certification process.
“Eric is very supportive of all the farmers, not just us, and so are all the people at NOFA-New Jersey,” he said, referring to the local organic farmers association.
The couple opened the farm stand at the front of a long driveway on their leased land on Tennent Road in the spring of 2017. The NavTan farm name comes from the middle names of his son and daughter.
Asked about his approach as a beginning farmer, he said he and Prathima have focused on diversity.
“We’re diverse enough so that if we lose one particular thing, it’s not that much of an impact on us,” he said, “we’re not quite organic yet, and we supplement what we grow with other farmers, and we use the Tri-County Cooperative” in nearby Hightstown to purchase additional produce at wholesale prices.
“Other farmers we partner with are organic, Jon Knox at Dogwood Farms in Hillsborough and we work with Cody Parker at Drop the Beet Farms on Adelphia Road in Freehold,” Marien said.
They also sell Dogwood Farms’ tomato sauces, Trapper’s Honey and other value-added foods in jars.
“We’re constantly trying to learn and improve. We tried to do a lot of things in the sandy soil that don’t work in sandy soil, so now we’re going to be building mounds with mulch and organic material,” he said.
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