By ERIN ROLL
Friday, Aug. 17, is a harvest day at the Montclair Community Farms’ main garden on Orange Road.
A group of young volunteers from the Urban Farm Youth Program, a division of Rutgers’ 4-H program, weighs baskets of tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans at a table in the center of the garden. The community gardens include the one near the Montclair History Center, and three others on Miller Street, and Charles H. Bullock and Hillside schools.
In the garden near the Montclair History Center, newly-certified master gardener Monique Perry stakes up tomato plants.
Herbs, such as lemon balm and basil, will need harvesting.
And farm manager Lana Mustafa needs someone to go on a road trip. “Anyone willing to drive to Orange Greenhouse to pick up baby plants?” she calls out to the group.
Nearby, volunteers Chris Snyder and Dan Delcher hitch the mobile farm stand up to a black pickup truck so it can start making the rounds at Montclair’s senior centers, where some of the Montclair Community Farms’ main customers are located.
The Montclair Community Farms have been in existence since 2011. The farms’ mission is to sell locally-grown fruits and vegetables at an affordable price to communities that need them, such as senior and low-income communities.
The farms are a joint project between several local and regional groups, including Montclair State University, the Montclair History Center, HomeCorp, the Montclair Health Department, the Essex County 4-H and the United Way of Northern New Jersey.
The 6,000-square-foot Orange Road site includes a large vegetable garden, a plastic-sheeted hoop house, or greenhouse, for starting seedlings, and a chicken coop.
Angelica Diggs of the History Center said the farm has yielded 4,500 pounds of produce since the farm project’s inception. The yield varies from year-to-year, but she said this year, the farms were on track to produce between 700 and 800 pounds of produce.
Volunteers pointed to a grapefruit-sized watermelon — a special baby variety — sitting on the table with the produce. The seniors like smaller varieties of fruits and vegetables, Mustafa said, since many of them live alone. But this particular watermelon will most likely not make it onto the farm stand because it is bruised and browned in places.
The baskets of produce also include pickle-sized cucumbers. The senior customers enjoy making their own pickles, Mustafa adds.
The weather has been a challenge for the farm this year. Flooding washed away a lot of the mulch pathways in the garden, and some of the tomatoes are starting to split from the excess humidity.
Working at the Montclair Community Farms has come full circle for Perry. As students, Perry and her Montclair classmates took regular field trips to the farm as students.
Perry has an interest in urban farming, and she hopes to explore organic farming.
Snyder is pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Montclair State University. His undergraduate work is in anthropology, with emphasis on medical and nutritional anthropology. He also helps run MSU’s new Campus Community Garden, which helps supply a food pantry on campus.
During the summer, the Orange Road site hosts summer camp and teen volunteer groups such as the Urban Farm Program.
One of the biggest challenges facing the farms is available land.
Two years ago, the farms entered into a partnership with the schools, through DIGS. The partnership allows for a bigger harvest. A challenge in the summer months for a school garden is there is the lack of labor when school is out. So volunteers tend to the school farms as well.
The farms have a partnership with the Montclair Food Co-op, which offers weekly farm shares to members who purchase into the program in the spring. If a member forgets to pick up their fruit-and-vegetable share for the week, that produce will be passed back to the farm for sale on the mobile farm stand.
The farm stand travels on a rotating schedule. The stand goes to Pine Ridge and to First Montclair House every Friday, and it makes monthly visits to the senior center at Edgemont Park. There is also a pop-up stand at HomeCorp one Saturday a month, and the stand makes monthly visits to the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Verona and Cedar Ridge Senior Housing in Cedar Grove. It also visits Pine Ridge senior housing and the First Montclair House.
One of the garden’s volunteers now runs Market Taverne in Morristown, which makes granola for the farm to sell as well.
Bryan Murdock is the director of the Center for Community Engagement at MSU, and has been involved with the farms since their inception. The community farms concept started on a very small scale, with the small garden located next to HomeCorp’s site on Miller Street. The garden volunteers would bring baskets of produce to the Head Start schools to give to parents.
The university wanted the history center to be a partner in the garden as tying into Montclair’s past as a primarily farming town before the arrival of the railroad in the mid-to-late 19th century, Murdock says.
The farms receive grant money from the United States Department of Agriculture and Partners for Health.
Any produce that is left over from the farm stand is donated to Toni’s Kitchen, Mustafa says. The farms also recently started working with Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless.