Wikoff makes transition to vegetables from grains
MANALAPAN — For former grain farmer Jim Wikoff, the path from grain farming to vegetable production wasn’t always a smooth trail.
One reason is deer remain a true scourge in this part of Monmouth County.
He invested $57,000 of his own money to purchase deer fencing for his triangular shaped tract of land bordered on one side by Tennent Road and another side where the farm market is located, on busy Route 9.
“We did good with grain farming here for quite a few years,” Wikoff said at the back of his farm, away his busy Route 9 farm stand.
“My father Charles and my brother and I did about 1,000 acres of grain for many years,” he said, noting other than that, the only vegetable they grew was sweet corn. He began working on the farm at 10 and began full-time after getting out of high school.
Along with losing leased land to the state, the jump into vegetables was prompted by the retirements of his older brother Charles and sister Susan. The family maximizes their remaining land that amounts to 82 acres, 68 of which are tillable.
Wikoff said the farm stand opened 15 years ago as a much smaller operation focused on sweet corn.
Selling vegetables, he quickly learned, “if you don’t have sweet corn on the road stand, you may as well not be open.”
They transitioned to mainly vegetables four years ago and three years ago they invested in a metal building and added refrigeration for storage.
“Now we’re learning how to apply fertilizer and how to do good drip irrigation, and we’re up to about 22 acres of sweet corn now so we’re able to space it out through the season.”
“We’re not organic, we’re conventional, so I’m working into it,” he said. He added the pesticides he uses on his land are so much safer than what existed 30 years ago.
“We try not to spray very much at all, we eat it all, too, so we never have sprayed a whole lot,” he said.
Two years ago the deer fence installation was finished. Wikoff got funding through a Farmland Preservation grant and he had to pay the $57,000 cost for 10,000 feet of deer fencing, posts and gates up front. He said the Farmland Preservation board paid him $17,000 for the project.
Prior to having the fence up, “I had to be around here for most of the night a lot of times during the growing season,” Wikoff said. The deer would come in and eat it all. They would walk all over the plastic we had put down in rows, poking holes in it.”
C&J Farms’ deer fencing ran $5.25 per foot and he hired specialists from Pennsylvania to install it all.
“The gates are all good and the posts are all sturdy and it’s been two years now and I’ve not caught one deer in here yet.”
“I should say, I went out and borrowed the money from Farm Credit, so I’ve been able to pay off some of it, but I still owe money on the deer fencing. It’ll take a few years to pay for it,” Wikoff said, “the land at least is now owned completely by me and my wife.”
Wikoff relies on his wife Maryann and daughters Jessica and Emily and their husbands to help run the farm stand during the summer and on weekends after Labor Day. Younger daughter Emily is a school teacher in Allentown while elder daughter Jesse is a former hotel manager who now works closely with her parents to run the family farm.
“We’re only open with vegetables for three months a year as of now and I owe it to my daughter Jess, she does a lot to keep us going.”
By keeping things mostly in the family, labor costs are kept down, he noted. They go out and pick summer mornings at 4:30 a.m. to gather the day’s produce for sale that day. The farm stand is open seven days a week from July 1 through Labor Day, but often times, only until 1 or 2 in the afternoon when that day’s produce has been sold off. After Labor Day, they scale back to weekends only.
Wikoff said he sells nearly all of what he raises on his acreage at the retail stand.
“People sometimes get aggravated at us because we’ll close the farm stand at 12:30 or 1 p.m. We’re out, we don’t have enough vegetables. But that’s what makes us unique, we pick all our own vegetables that morning, so everything is fresh every day, everything is field-to-table every day. If we need a few more peppers or sweet corn we’ll go out and pick them now so we make it to the end of the day,” he said of the post-Labor Day weekends-only operating mode.
“The hardest thing we do is trying to gauge how much we’re going to sell in a given day,” he said, “that’s really what makes us unique: We pick a few tomatoes sometimes a couple of days ahead but we have a lot of good, loyal customers here.”
No one occupies the house Wikoff grew up in on the farm, though it’s still used during the day. It remains a possibility that he and his wife Maryann may move back into the old white farmhouse in coming years as they get older, but for now, they live about 19 miles from the farm.
“If you’re living here, you could easily be working 24 hours a day,” he said pausing in front of the farmhouse. “We feel we need a little free time to ourselves. Maybe as we get older we’ll come back here, we have grandkids over in Upper Freehold. We’re both 63 so we may start trying to slow down a little bit.”
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