NJ-NOFA pioneer Harris a self-starter
HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Stephanie Harris decided more than four decades ago she was going to do something about the world’s pollution and climate troubles.
So she embraced organic gardening principles and began to learn as much as she could about restoring and protecting soils, air and water.
A veteran organic farmer, Harris is one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement in New Jersey, and, along with other influential pioneers such as Ed Lidzbarski, Jim Kensil, Al Johnson and Adrian Hyde, helped shape the New Jersey chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association into a thriving organization with more than 400 farmer members.
She and her husband, Robert, who looks after the bees on the property among other things, preside over 19 acres in Hopewell Township, Mercer County. She admits it’s a lot to handle, and after many years, she no longer keeps three horses she’d looked after for decades, as she was a dressage enthusiast in her younger days.
“We had just moved to Concord, Massachusetts where we were living on a gentleman’s farm when I read ‘Silent Spring,’” Harris said. After reading the book, first published in 1962, she said she was transformed.
“I became enamored and engrossed with organic agriculture and organic food,” she recalled.
At that time, the late 1960s, it was very difficult to find organic food.
There was only one market in Boston about a half-hour’s drive from where she and Robert were living in Concord.
She would mail-order her dry good foods from Walnut Acres in Penns Creek, Pa., and began growing her own vegetables.
By the time she and Robert moved to a 2 1/2-acre property just outside Washington D.C., a few years later, she was a seasoned small organic farmer, growing and preserving all her own food.
She and Robert moved to their current location in Hopewell township in 1983 and built parts of the farm themselves, in stages, but it was enough so that by 1984, she put out a sign, Stone Hedge Farm, and began selling vegetables to friends and neighbors so she could qualify for farmland assessment on the spacious property, which has several slopes and small hills.
“There were very few organic farmers around at that time. Then I received a phone call from Meg Cadoux, who was the first farmer at the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association’s farm.
She said it would be great if organic farmers got together to share information and support each other.
She invited seven of us to the Watershed Association to sit around the table and discuss the idea of starting a chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association in New Jersey.”
They started the chapter, got their 501-c-3 non-profit certification, and the southernmost chapter of NOFA was formally launched.
“A year or so later, Meg fell in love with Gary Hirschberg who was starting Stonyfield Yogurt Co., she went off to marry him and live in New Hampshire. The Watershed Association got a new farmer and that was Al Johnson.”
Johnson inherited all of her files ran NOFA-NJ out of the farmhouse kitchen for a few years until a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation enabled the group to hire an executive director. One of the early directors was Sayreville-raised Erich Bremer, who now heads up the Organic Certification Program at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.
Harris credited the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for being very supportive of the NOFA-NJ chapter over the years, offering the group grants every year since they were officially incorporated as a non-profit.
Rattling off a bevy of examples, Harris said the early members mentored new organic farmers who in turn became mentors themselves.
“What I loved was seeing was how Ed (Lidzbarksi) trained Jim Kinsel and then Jim trained Jessica Neiderer and she went on to train so many others in organic growing practices,” Harris said. “It’s this wonderful branching tree where you start with a few organic farmers and each one trains so many more. Now we have a marvelous, large community of organic farmers in New Jersey.”
She also credited Mike Rassweiler of North Slope Farm in West Amwell with training other beginning farmers and Al Johnson of Titusville and Ted Klett and Adrian Hyde of Hopewell for being encouraging — yet realistic — teachers.
“This is not an easy business, and in some ways the pandemic made it even tougher” she argued.
“One thing I think farmers in this immediate area have experienced is that there has been an increasing supply of organic produce while the demand for organic produce has stayed about the same as it was before the pandemic, so the competition was getting tougher, especially as far as finding new members for CSA programs,” she said.
Yet, “once the pandemic struck, everybody decided they wanted fresh, local, organic food and demand began to spike up again, so there were times last year when supply could barely keep up with demand.”
She credits the Whole Earth Center in Princeton with being supportive of so many smaller organic farmers and their efforts.
“If I have an excess of something, for instance, paw-paw’s, in the fall, I will take them to Whole Earth Center in Princeton. They have been wonderful over the years; they take my paw-paw’s, they take my duck eggs, they’ll take strawberries when I have excess and they take my squash, my pumpkins and so forth.”
At Stone Hedge Farm, Harris has a you-pick strawberry patch, a fairly large fruit orchard, free-range chickens and ducks, a flock of sheep, all manner of cool temperature and seasonal vegetables and herbs. She also grows hay and straw on adjoining fields, leftover over from the years she boarded three horses.
Harris and her husband have been successfully selling their produce in various CSA program models for years.
In recent years, they purchased a second farm in Maine, near Acadia National Park. Harris and her husband spend summers there while farm hands look after Stone Hedge in Hopewell. Managing two farms simultaneously can be challenging, she admitted, but she has good local help, including a daughter, Kate, who lives in Maine. (A son, Alex, lives in Hawaii and is not involved in the operations.)
“I’m in Maine and I’m telling my workers here what to do. If there’s a problem, they’ll send me a photograph of a diseased leaf or pest or whatever, and I have to figure out what it is and what to do about it” she said, “it’s challenging, but that’s how we do summer production.” Because several large hoop houses adorn her Hopewell property, in recent years, she’s concentrated more on winter time production of herbs and cool weather crops.
“I do business primarily with people who are friends and neighbors. They contact me and ask me what I have harvested for them. We put it in my garage refrigerator and they come and pick it up. It’s all self-serve,” she said, “and it’s all very community-based.”