Rassweiler reflects on 25 years of vegetables
ASBURY PARK — In 2020, Mike Rassweiler celebrated 25 years of growing and selling organic vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Along with managing his North Slope Farm in Hunterdon County, he serves as president of the board of directors for the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New Jersey, a group with more than 400 member farmers.
Rassweiler grew up in Princeton Borough and attended the private Lawrenceville School. His father was an executive at Johnson and Johnson corporate headquarters in New Brunswick and his mother was a teacher.
After a year at Rutgers, he transferred to Colorado State University and studied geography. He said he became interested in farming, land use and sustainability while living in Boulder.
Returning to New Jersey, he purchased 55 acres in 1994 for $300,000, he said.
He said he developed a five-year business plan for North Slope Farm in 1994, got the farm Certified Organic in 1997 and he’s been off and running since, more recently with his wife, Colleen Harrington.
Shortly after creating his business plan, he said, it dawned on him he’d have to invest what he called “stewardship capital” into his operation. His mission statement for North Slope Farm describes his land stewardship efforts.
“Stewardship means investing in and supporting systems that will be beneficial to society. And farming in my mind is a great asset to society,” he said.
“In Boulder I had this one professor who knew a lot about land use issues, and part of this property he was involved with was community-owned,” he said, adding, “I’ve always been very interested in how we use our land and that got me thinking about buying a piece of land and having a vision for it.
“I brought with it a vision I’d developed while I was in college, centered around trying to live a sustainable, low-impact, ecologically-conscious life,” Rassweiler said.
Rassweiler said one-third of his land is wooded or wetlands and two-thirds of his land is suitable for agriculture. He and Harrington grow about $40,000 worth of vegetables, herbs and flowers on a small chunk of their farm, annually. He credited the NRCS with helping him to shape the progress of his organic farm in its earliest years of production in the late 1990’s.
They grow lettuces, spinach, kale, turnips, carrots, beans, peas and a wide range of specialty and medicinal herbs.
They’ve also developed a successful flower business.
Rassweiler can be found most Saturday mornings during the growing season at West Windsor Farmers’ Market.
Information he’s posted on the North Slope Farm website from his days teaching younger farmers organic farming practices serves as a caution for those who may wish to jump into farming as a second career or bright-eyed youngsters fresh out of college, bursting with passion and energy.
“Part of the training program was keeping daily records and to summarize the records of others,” Rassweiler said. “And that’s what we’re offering to our community in New Jersey. We say ‘Look, these are real numbers and real descriptions of activity at a small-scale organic farm in New Jersey.’ The reality is, if you’re going to pay the price that everybody’s charging you for their services, it’s a very challenging business.
“From utilities to lawyers to insurance, it’s really hard to make a profit in vegetable farming because you have all these associated costs that are high, and they’re kind of arbitrarily high compared to the strict price settings of vegetables.”
“From what I’ve observed in New Jersey,” he said, “we need to have a way to provide access to capital for new farms, because the financial security is the biggest limitation.
“Until we address that, we’re not going to improve much.”
“When I got into selling organic vegetables at farmers markets — that’s not to say it hadn’t been done before — I felt like I was holding a place for other farmers to join. The community wants access to fresh local produce, but a lot of the farm retail stands were going out of business in the early 1990’s,” he recalled.
“So trying to hold a space at the local farmers’ market I felt was almost a political act back then. Now, I feel like people expect it, they call out for it, they demand it and there’s more and more farmers’ markets all over New Jersey.”
Now in his early 50s, he’s almost ready to step back. The last two years on the farm has been just Rassweiler and his wife Colleen. His organic training programs with NOFA-NJ are on hold.
“We’re still going to fresh market flowers as our prime cash crop. Specialty herbs will always be there because that’s what I know I can do when I’m less able to manage specialty flowers. We’ve planted a few Rutgers hazelnut trees to use their varieties and I’m pretty excited about that. That’s part of my long term plan, I’m going to be dealing in fresh hazelnuts.”