Third generation at Drake Farms reflects on land’s evolution
SKILLMAN — Drake Farms is nestled between Routes 206 and 518 here, and as development pressures have increased going west on Route 518 toward Hopewell, Ringoes and Lambertville, so has his farm’s deer problem.
As a consequence, Drake has focused his efforts in the last decade on transitioning from a grain, hay and straw operation to vegetables.
“You’ve got 100-plus deer per square mile here now, but 20 years ago you could grow corn and soybeans here without any problems,” said John Drake.
Drake, 50, manages the farm with the help of a part-time employee who works year-round tending to his chickens and a very small seasonal crew for vegetable planting and harvesting.
“I’m go-go-go seven days a week during the season and in the wintertime I work a minimum of 12 hours a day,” Drake said.
A small farm stand sits in the center of a large dirt and gravel parking lot at the front of his property on Route 518.
“I’m third generation and the last Drake farming. We have 57 acres and a home that I own,” he said. “The rest of the ground is leased and we’ve been transitioning from being a large grain operation with hay and straw to mostly vegetables now.”
He learned farming from his father and his uncle. His mother died from leukemia when he was 6. She ran much of the vegetable operation that he has resurrected.
His mother was once a fixture at nearby Trenton Famers’ market on Spruce Street in Ewing Township.
“I learned [farming] from my father and my uncle, and if you had questions about vegetables, they would pick the phone up and call someone who knew what they were doing,” he related.
He is John H. Drake. His father was John W. Drake and his uncle was Donald R. Drake.
John’s grandfather, George Wilbur Drake, was the initial farmer on the property here and began with cows and hay and straw in the 1920’s.
The cow barn burned down in 1971, Drake recalled, when he was a toddler.
His grandfather died in 1985. His father, John W., died in November, 2006, “but he always did some vegetables after my mother passed away.
“We’ve always done layer hens here and we have 4,200 birds in the big chicken house where they belong,” he said, adding, with his vegetable growing endeavors, “I’m not organic, but we use the least amount of chemicals possible because it’s so … expensive.”
“One time my father was planting vegetables when I was a kid. He said, ‘I must be nuts, I’ve got over 400 pepper plants.’ Now, I’ve got more than that in one row!”
Earlier this year at a reorganization meeting in February in Hightstown, Drake was elected vice-president of the local Tri-County Cooperative, succeeding Robert Balz of Monroe, who oversees 14- and 55-acre vegetable farms in Monroe and Englishtown in his retirement.
Balz spent almost his entire working career at Plant Food Company in Cranbury.
Like a lot of farmers, Drake is mechanically inclined and worked at a steel and iron fabricator plant in Hillsborough while working with his father on the farm part-time through the years.
He went to Montgomery Township High School and then Somerset County Vo-Tech where he studied welding and metal working.
He said he was encouraged not to farm by his father.
“I worked in an iron fabrication shop for 17 years and when they went under, towards the end there, I became a full-time farmer in the winter and I was back there as a free agent at the end.
“My boss used to joke with me — he always knew I was farming in between — he’d come over and ask, ‘So when are you going to start planting soybeans?’”
Asked why he didn’t follow his father’s advice, he explained the realities: “All you do is lose money with the deer pressure around here. The whole time I was in high school, he was telling me, ‘You’d better find something to do.’”
Drake said his training in steel and iron working and welding have come in handy, as he’s built several of the large storage structures on the farm.
“If I want to make a planter, I’ll build it here and weld it together myself,” he said, “I’ve built drip application machines myself here over winter months.”
Of his ongoing process transitioning into mostly vegetables, selling at his retail stand that faces Route 518 and to restaurants and restaurant produce distributors, Drake said, “we’re still all over the place doing everything, just not as much corn and soybeans anymore. I grow corn to feed my chickens and I sell a few loads up at Port Newark.
“That goes overseas just like the soybeans I used to grow.”
In the meantime, he is focusing in on row after row, acre after acre of corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, string beans, sugar snap peas “and a lot of stuff for Zone 7 and Tri-County Cooperative,” as well as restaurants as far away as Yardley, Pa.
“The problem with restaurants right now is they’re not buying as much as they would be without the COVID pandemic going on.”
In spite of his lack of college background, Drake has proven himself internet and computer savvy and he maintains a good FaceBook page for Drake Farms.
An actual internet website for Drake Farms, like his retail stand out front, is on his long list of “things to do,” but until then, social media has been helpful in getting information to customers
As an example, Drake said after posting on Facebook that the farm had okra available, it was sold out within and hour
So given how hard he works hard at his family’s long-held Drake Farms, what satisfaction does Drake get out of his long hours during the season and 12 hour days in the winter?
“Hearing from customers about good tasting produce is satisfying,” he said.
“It’s more about the challenge of it. Every day it’s something different. The more challenging it is, the better it is. Almost any person can grow [feed] corn, soybeans, hay and straw; if you want to grow something challenging, grow vegetables because if it’s not a blight, it’s a bug, if it’s not a bug, it’s a disease.”