By Joseph Sapia
Randy Peck has seen the landscape change since he began farming in 1979.
He started out as a wholesaler. Now, Peck, who grows vegetables, nursery stock and tree fruits in Millstone and East Windsor, sells almost 100 percent retail, mostly at his farm stand on Route 35 in Holmdel.
“Keeping it local has been a big push,” Peck said. “People are attracted to local.”
On Tuesday, Peck and about 75 others – farmers, restaurateurs, food buyers, brewers, agriculture and elected officials and leaders of non-profits – came together for the kickoff of the Grown in Monmouth program at the Rutgers University Research Center in Upper Freehold.
The goal of the joint project of the county’s Board of Freeholders, Economic Development, Public Information and Tourism, and Planning, along with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, is to better understand how to connect buyers to Monmouth County’s sellers of nursery and field crops, horticulture, animals, fish and aquaculture and agri-tourism.
“It’s about time we started focusing on the agricultural program we have in Monmouth County,” said Freeholder Lillian G. Burry. “It’s long overdue. We have so much to offer.”
In November, the federal Department of Agriculture awarded an $80,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant for the establishment of Grown in Monmouth. The project is providing another $80,000 of in-kind services.
The Morris County-based planning and environmental consulting firm of Spinelli and Pinto has been tasked with a yearlong project to assess county agriculture, identify challenges and trends along with policies and programs to support agriculture, evaluate the potential for economic growth, and recommend a marketing plan.
The firm sought input from meeting participants through a 10-page survey and through discussion at the meeting. “We want to learn from you. We don’t want to preach to you,” consultant Frank Pinto told members of the group.
Grown in Monmouth now has a Facebook page to communicate news. Its logo shows the words “Grown in Monmouth” with a barn and silo. John Ciufo, Economic Development’s executive director, noted the logo could be altered to different types of farming.
“Agriculture and the equine industry is an important component in Monmouth County and economic development,” said Nancy Grbelja, a harness-racing horse owner of 12 years and member of the county Agriculture Development Board, county Planning Board and Millstone Township Committee.
“I think it’s extremely important to support the agricultural industry of New Jersey and I think it’s extremely important as residents we emphasize to our legislators we keep New Jersey green and the Garden State,” Grbelja said.
Jessica Winberry, who has worked for agriculture non-profits and whose husband, Paul, is chef at the Beach Tavern in Monmouth Beach, said she was pleased that the newly formed group will promote locally sourced food, such as seafood, to restaurants. “It’s an amazing starting point,” she said. “Restaurants can play a real important role in moving the needle in terms of supply and demand,” Winberry said.
Dorothea Bongiovi, who operates the non-profit Soul Kitchen restaurant in Red Bank, said, “I think it’s interesting to see farmers who still love the land. And we can’t have food without them.” Soul Kitchen grows vegetables on an acre in Colts Neck and herbs and vegetables at is Red Bank location, Bongiovi said.
The grant’s focus will be 13 county municipalities that fit the definition of “rural communities” by the federal agriculture department: Allentown, Colts Neck, Englishtown, Farmingdale, Freehold Township, Holmdel, Howell, Manalapan, Marlboro, Millstone, Roosevelt, Upper Freehold and Wall. But Grown in Monmouth officials emphasized farmers and businesses in all 53 county municipalities are welcome to take advantage of the program.
Freeholder Thomas A. Arnone expected other counties to follow Monmouth’s lead. “I will assure you people are going to follow in our footsteps,” Arnone said.
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