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Hobby grower turns full-time producer in retirement
By RICHARD J. SKELLY
Washington Township, N.J. — Taking his inspiration from prominent organic farmer Eliot Coleman in Maine, Robert Hill of Morris Plains, N.J., realized his lifelong ambition of owning an organic farm just a few years ago. He retired at 50 as a facilities manager with the Morris Plains school district. In April, 2012, he put much of his retirement savings and monthly public employees’ retirement system checks directly into the soil at his newly operating 11-acre Witchwood Farm in Washington Township off Route 31 in Warren County.
He cautioned he is not USDA certified organic, but adds the raves from his growing base of customers are proof enough for him.
“I’ve always used organic practices,” Hill said one recent sunny weekend morning, “but I’m not yet certified organic. That costs you money. It’s a lot of record keeping, and why pay money for the government to do their job? I recently got ‘Certified Naturally Grown,’ which is a similar program, but instead of being inspected by USDA officials, you’re inspected by other organic farmers,” Hill explained.
Hill said he’s heavily involved in the New Jersey Organic Farming Association. Asked about his work schedule, Hill — who lives on his land in a trailer during the week and returns home to Morris Plains and customers there on Friday evenings and part of the weekend — said in early October, “I got my first haircut today since May, so that tells you a bit about how busy I’ve been.”
Hill grew up in East Hanover, N.J., and said he maintained and was fascinated with vegetable gardens from the time he was a kid.
In his teens, he said, “someone would tell me I couldn’t do something and I’d go ahead and do it. For example, I gave myself four years to grow bananas and I was able to do it in two years.
“I’ve always just been a very avid gardener and was always a fan of Eliot Coleman, he’s my farming idol, and I’ve always used his practices in gardening.”
Farming for a living was something Hill always wanted to do, “so once I hit 50, I realized I’d better do it now or I’m never gonna do it.” Hill’s plot of land off Cemetery Hill Road in Washington Township includes areas for chickens, egg laying geese, Berkshire hogs and some sheep. He’s currently using about 1.5 acres of his land for growing all manner of vegetables and a small fruit orchard. The woods surrounding his south facing tract of land provide a nice buffer from high winds during the winter, and while he eventually plans to clear more space for farming, he’s taking it one step at a time.
Of his idol Coleman, who lives in coastal Maine, an area known for its harsh winters, “by the late 1980’s I was reading everything he wrote, ‘The New Organic Growers’ and ‘Four Season Harvest.’ He’s famous for producing vegetables in the middle of winter.”
Because he farms on a wood-lined tract that faces south, the frost disappears more quickly in colder months, he said, and “it’s just a couple of degrees warmer on these fields through the winter.”
Asked about challenges he’s faced since he began his organic farming on the parcel in 2012, Hill said his first year was clearing the land, his second year he had a full acre and half of vegetables wiped out by deer, and this year, he installed expensive solar-powered electric fencing. He’s had to modify his business plan several times, he admitted.
“It’s funny how my business plan has changed and been drastically altered,” he continued, “when I first opened, my goal was strictly to be an organic vegetable farm. That’s something I was comfortable with and had been doing since I was 12.
“Then I bought my first few chickens and I found I couldn’t keep up with the demand for farm fresh eggs so my flock has been growing and I realized by myself I couldn’t really keep up with weeds on 1.5 acres and so I developed a small dwarf fruit orchard that I only have to weed wack a couple of times a year.”
Hill also got interested in raising Berkshire hogs so he now has a handful of them on his property, noting he was able to sell his first batch earlier this summer as whole and half hogs.
“I’ve been adapting to what the customer wants and what I can support on the land,” he said, “so the business plan is based on what the customers are calling out for, as well as what the property will support and allow.”