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WEST WINDSOR — Farmers, educators, backyard vegetable gardeners and those who support New Jersey’s farming community gathered at the Boathouse in Mercer County Park to celebrate the state’s diversified agricultural communities and key players in those communities at the New Jersey Agriculture Society’s Taste of New Jersey gala.
Robert Swanekamp of Kube-Pak in Allentown and president of the New Jersey Agricultural Society, founded in 1781, served as emcee with Ag Society Executive Director Al Murray presenting awards to outstanding agricultural achievers in the state.
Swanekamp pointed out the food for the meal was donated from farmers and food producers who are involved in the ag society.
The Teacher of the Year Award was presented to Sonya L. Harris, who got up to speak along with the ag society’s Learning Through Gardening program director Carolyn Taylor.
Harris is a special education teacher at Dorothy Bullock Elementary School in Glassboro.
Four years ago, Sonya Harris decided that the 500 students at Dorothy L. Bullock Elementary School in Glassboro needed a garden to show them how plants grow and to encourage them to eat fresh, healthy food. She wanted the garden to be a space where teachers could use gardening to teach reading, writing, social studies, and science.
After almost a year of planning, and with community fundraising and donations from 24 local and national businesses, the Bullock Children’s Garden was built on the weekend of May 2, 2015.
“She is a true champion for school gardening in New Jersey and her goal is no less than to see a self-sufficient garden built in every school in the state,” Taylor said in introducing Harris.
The ag society’s Learning Through Gardening Program has just completed its 15th year.
Since it’s founding, the program has helped launch vegetable gardens at 90 pre-schools and elementary schools serving about 39,000 students, Taylor said.
“We did a survey a couple of years ago and found that 82 percent of those schools still have active programs today,” Taylor said.
In accepting her award, Harris told the crowd: “Carolyn Taylor’s unwavering support has been invaluable to us down in Glassboro, and when I started this program, I did not touch dirt.
“My friends over here can tell you. Now, these nails are the best dirt sweepers I’ve ever had.”
“We are the Garden State, why does every school not have a garden? Why are we not teaching our children how to grow their own food, how to be self-sufficient and how to be healthy from that,” Harris continued to thunderous applause from the audience. Century Awards were presented to Hensel Farms in Milmay, in between Vineland and May’s Landing, and Fralinger Orchards of Bridgeton.
“The Hensels are a wonderful family and they’re all about what is good about agriculture in our state,” Murray told the crowd. “Mr. Hensel when I first met him was involved in so many different boards and organizations, he was always the voice of reason.
“That’s how he struck me when we went to these meetings, he always offered constructive advice and always tried to offer solutions rather than a problem.”
In accepting his Century Award, Eric Hensel told the crowd, “When you’re 80 years old and you’re celebrating something that’s been around for 100 years it might be the last time.” Hensel Farms was established in 1908 in Milmay, Atlantic County.
Bob Fralinger of Fralinger Orchards in Bridgeton also received a Century Farm Award. Fralinger Orchards is known around the Atlantic seaboard for its peaches and nectarines.
“It was quite a surprise for me when I heard we were getting this award a couple of months ago,” Fralinger told the crowd.
“I was a history major in college and they wanted us to do a final report or thesis on something that was important to us and had to do with history. So I did a thesis on our family farm and was able to trace the land all the way back to the time when it was owned by William Penn. It was under British ownership at that time and I was able to go that far back through the historical society,” he added.
“The more recent history is when my great grandfather took over and he purchased it, he was a real estate agent-farmer and he purchased this little piece of property, he was buying and selling properties and doing some farming, and when he purchased this property it was only 50 acres,” Fralinger continued. “It came with a house and my grandparents lived in it, it’s still a viable house.” He added the house had no electricity until the early 1950’s.
“We enjoy what we’re doing very much. I hope the farming industry can stay viable in the state of New Jersey. I’ve got my doubts that it’s going to stay the same, as things are changing rapidly now, but I think if we can get enough people interested, like Sonya the teacher showing the children how to raise crops, I believe this will stay and the Garden State will remain green,” Fralinger told the crowd.
The Gold Medallion Award was presented to Richard E. Nieuwenhuis, owner of Scenic Valley Greenhouses in White Township, Warren County. Nieuwenhuis, a native of now mostly-suburban Passaic County, has been the owner-operator of the company for the last four decades.
“I am really humbled by this award. If I look at past recipients of this I feel that I don’t stack up to a lot of them,” Nieuwenhuis said.
He told the crowd he had a lot of interest in agriculture and farming growing up, and “was smart enough to marry a farm girl.”
“My career started in Passaic County,” he said. “It had a defunct county Board of Ag at the time and with a few other people we were able to revive it and get it going again.”
“That allowed us a seat at the Ag Convention, and through the process of different things I was nominated through the North Jersey Caucus to represent the nursery and greenhouse industry on the state board and that opened up a whole new life and perspective for me on the state Board of Agriculture,” he said.
After thanking his brother, daughters and wife for being at the awards gala — and tearfully thanking his wife, Trudy — Nieuwenhuis said all involved in agriculture in the Garden State should be proud of groups like the New Jersey Farm Bureau and the Ag Society.
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