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Healthy People interview: Matt and Jessica Hand, founders and operators of Hand Picked Farm, Flemington, NJ

October 29, 2014

ReadHealthy: Where is your farm located, and when did you break ground?


Matt Hand: Hand Picked Farm is located at 9 Stacey Rd in Flemington, NJ, in Hunterdon County.  We moved here and got working in March 2013.

RH: Is Hand Picked Farm organic?


MH: Our produce is all grown organically and I am in the (slow) process of filling out my organic certification paperwork. We grow mixed vegetables, typically in interesting/heirloom varieties that people are not often exposed to in the supermarket.


RH: What initially motivated you or gave you the idea to own a farm? What benefits did you see in the idea (for your family, your children, financially, your health, emotionally, etc.)? What was appealing about it?


MH: I have always loved growing, and to be honest have never been satisfied or particularly good at sitting down work. I studied video editing in college and made the decision to not pursue that field after an internship. At the same time, I had been immersing myself in the problems of modern agriculture and learning about the regenerative benefits organic farming can bring to the land. The benefits I see to this lifestyle are emotional and physical health; working outside and with my body feels wonderful, as if I am using this whole corporeal package for exactly what it was designed to do.

RH: Are you and your family vegetarian?


MH: I am no longer a vegetarian. I feel that animals play a large role in agriculture, soil building, land regeneration, and in human nutrition throughout history. On the flipside, I abhor factory farming and completely understand why vegetarians and vegans make the choices they do. I lived as a vegetarian for eight years, three of which were vegan. My wife Jessica is still a vegetarian for animal rights and health reasons.   

RH: Had either of you had any experience farming, or even gardening, prior to this? What did each of you do for a living before this?


MH: I started gardening at the age of three, and carried it throughout adulthood. After college I entered into a two-year apprenticeship at (the late) Upper Meadows Farm in Montague, NJ under Leonard Pollara, who was one of the pioneering organic farmers in the state, having been certified in 1992. Jessica works off farm as a veterinary assistant training to be a veterinary technician. Directly prior to farming I worked in an office making phone calls, and before that I worked at Whole Foods in varying capacities.

RH: Do you remember the moment you and your wife decided to lease a farm? Was it something you had discussed theoretically for a little while? When did it become an actual plan and not just a discussion?


MH: I had always had the dream, but it always felt distant. We wanted to stay in NJ, which makes farming that much more expensive, and we preferred to stay in the central region of the state to remain close to family. I found the farm searching through listings on the NJ Department of Agriculture’s Farmlink website, which is similar to Craigslist ads for landlords, farmers, etc. to find land or lease land. I found an opportunity that included living accommodations for our family and the option to buy at the end of a five-year lease. On top of that, the location was perfect; only 15 minutes from Tabby's Place, where Jessica works, whereas previously she had driving 45 minutes or more each way to get to work. We talked it over, made budget projections, met with the landlord, brought the kids to see the farm and house, and made the decision in early February 2013 after finding the listing in January of that year.

RH: Once it was decided, what was the business process like? How did you learn who to contact, what steps to take, what to do next? Can you discuss the process of finding the right land, entering into a business agreement, etc.?


MH: I found continuing mentorship in Leonard, my mentor from Upper Meadows Farm, who helped me through mapping out the business. I attended seminars on farm marketing and business planning through the Northeast Organic Farming Association of NJ (NOFANJ) and drafted up an extensive business plan to work from. The land in this case is slightly less than ideal, but I can build fertility upon it. Land was just one factor in the right "fit" for our family and this place offered land, help with improvements (fences, property maintenance, a barn, a garage, etc.). I made sure the lease had everything in it that would allow me to manage the land as an organic farm, complying with National Organic Plan standards, and chose a five-year term for security in my investment for the business. 


RH: When the papers were signed, what came next? Was there a lot of prep work, building structures, preparing soil, buying chickens or tractors? What was the process like to get everything up and running? How long did that take?


MH: This process is never ending. When I moved here, everything was a "front lawn," though it was not treated with anything but occasional mowing. The soil type is wet and heavy, so I amended the soil with lime and gypsum, used a garden tiller (which I eventually replaced this year with a two-wheel tractor), and used a hoe to make mounded raised beds to help with water drainage. I have put up more than 1,500 feet of deer fence, tilled and made beds on an acre of land, built a chicken coop and raised chicks for egg laying, worked on figuring out and fixing the water infrastructure, removed trees, planted other trees for hedrows, managed compost and restaurant waste, built a hoop house, took down a hoop house, fixed old machines, kept new ones running, and turned the barn into a food distribution center for the farm. The list goes on; everything continually gets revisited and re-thought, and hopefully improved upon.  


RH: What surprises or challenges did you encounter during the first few months? Was anything more work than you expected? Longer hours? More money? What was most difficult about getting up and running and becoming a profitable business?


MH: I encountered many difficulties with the town zoning board regarding my fences and hoop house, which I had to take down, and I had to trim the fence height. I knew the time and money commitments needed though previous experience and planning/budgeting. I was not able, however, to obtain a loan due to lack of experience, which scaled back my plans significantly but ultimately allowed me to be profitable (though not with much gross income) in the first year.  

RH: What people, groups, companies, websites, or organizations helped give you the support, education, and information resources you needed along the way?


MH: I can't say enough about NOFANJ. I am part of their "Journeyperson" program, which receives money through the farm bill for beginning farming education and training. This allows me a stipend to attend classes and workshops and purchase books to expand my horizons past my farm. I am also working with the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to receive cost-share assistance in transitioning to being certified organic. My landlord Pat Huizing provides the largest contribution of all, having given us the opportunity and support to turn her property into a working organic farm, and accepting my family into her home!

RH: How old were your children when you all moved to the farm? Did you have a conversation with them about what was happening? How did you explain it to them, and how did they respond?


MH: They were 2.5 and 5 when we moved. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in south Jersey, so naturally they loved the idea of living on the farm with the huge "yard," woods, and a house to live in. I had always talked about farming with them and we had visited farms before, so it was not a shock to them.  

RH: How do you think living on the farm will affect your children in terms of healthy decisions, love for nature, work ethic, social development, and in other ways?


MH: I know their access to nature has a positive impact on them. My younger son loves helping me work. The older one not so much, but I think seeing the farm operate will instill a strong work ethic within them. Their friends love coming here to see the chickens and play in the barn.

RH: What has their response been so far? Do they enjoy the farm? Are they interested in the work you do? How do they spend their free time?


MH: They love watching TV and playing video games like non-farm kids, which they do often. I don't want to make them love or live my life; the best I can do is expose them to it and hope for the best. My youngest is into whatever I am doing. The older one can be stubborn about helping but loves to get into projects that suit his fancy (he’s not one for chores).  hey spend a lot of their outside time running around; I found lots of used outdoor play sets that I took home. They also like riding bikes down our long, sloping driveway.

RH: What do you do now to generate income on the farm?


MH: I operate as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which means people pay for their produce up front in the pre-season to get a decent savings on their produce and allow the farmer to stay out of debt and to buy supplies pre-season when they are needed. In the summer I sell at a farmer’s market that Whole Foods Market Marlton hosts on Fridays from 11am-3pm. I am expanding the CSA from 20 shares to 25 shares and adding another market (TBD) for 2015. I am also bringing on help; this year I feel I did the max I can do as one farmer.


RH: What do you wish the general public knew about farming, or about the food choices they make?

MH: It is important for your health and the planet's health to eat locally grown and seasonally available food. Though not always, most small organic farmers are practicing their craft in ways that have a positive impact on the surrounding environment.

For more information or to sign up for Hand Picked Farm's CSA, email [email protected] or call 908-447-0267.

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