Over the course of two days in July 2021, Cold Brook Farm saw its first “non-conventional” agricultural harvest for as long as anyone in the community could remember, likely in over seventy years. Although our grains were planted and raised using regenerative / organic methods, we cannot call them “organic” for another eighteen (18) months. We would have to fill out a boatload of paperwork to be “certified organic” and, at this point, we most likely will not pursue certification because we’d rather put the time and money that it would take into producing the finest quality food. Meanwhile, our fields have no “conventional” inputs on them, and therefore, our grains are without pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides or synthetic fertilizers and we are very proud of that!
From the moment that our bid for Cold Brook Farm was accepted by its previous owners, we knew that one of the biggest challenges facing us would be converting the farm to regenerative organic agriculture. We believe that “conventional” agriculture poisons the land, kills all kinds of beneficial life in the soil, severely reduces biodiversity and is a major source of erosion and runoff that pollutes our drinking water.
On the surface, our goals were simple – use our farmland to grow healthy, best-in-class, value-added food with a “sense of place” using regenerative, organic agricultural methods to heal the land, feed people great food and support the local economy. Unfortunately, as two suburbanites with zero farming experience, we had a lot to learn and many decisions to make.
Deciding what to plant – at least on the majority of the thirteen acres of our property that was currently being farmed – ended up being rather simple. In researching the area to which we were moving, we had come across a case study about a wonderful organization named River Valley Community Grains whose goals perfectly aligned with ours:
Restoring the soils, waters, and health of our communities.
We help farmers use regenerative and organic agricultural methods to help the growing demand for nutrient dense grains, local flour, “real bread,” and healthy cereals in our region.
Researching further, we learned that this part of New Jersey was once the “breadbasket” of the original thirteen colonies and had a long history of growing and milling grains. When we coupled this with our family’s love for all kinds of baking, helping to bring heirloom grains back to our little corner of the world was a “no-brainer.”
Our first call was to the farmer who was currently working the land at Cold Brook Farm to see if he would be interested in helping us transition to organic agriculture. He is an exceptional farmer, a lovely person, and has made a successful farming business out of providing farming services not only on his family’s land, but on numerous small plots like ours that collectively add up to well over three thousand acres of some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. Just forty miles from New York City, the pressure to convert farms in this part of New Jersey to subdivisions and shopping malls is extreme, and so we really owe a debt of gratitude to both him, and the landowners for whom he works, for not allowing that to happen. Unfortunately for us, his was a business model based on scale and planting just a few GMO/commodity crops and although we have remained in contact and friendly, in the end, our continuing to work together was not to be.
Jay and Jason on Harvest Day
Following a lengthy series of referrals, dead ends, and associated phone calls, we found an absolutely lovely local young man, Jay Vogelaar, to help us farm Cold Brook. Jay’s family has long been organically raising, pastured beef, poultry and pork at River Bend Farm in Far Hills, New Jersey. He was willing to work alongside us to convert Cold Brook Farm to regenerative, organic farming practices, was interested in reintroducing heirloom grains to our area and seemed to even enjoy (or perhaps tolerate with a smile) our consistent ability to make farming decisions that cost more, took longer, and probably would reduce our yields – all in the interest of healing the land, increasing biodiversity and growing grains that are both best-in-class and will hopefully exhibit the same terroir-driven sense of place, similar to the finest wine grapes, for those who bake with our flour.
After two successive cover crops and fertilizing with chicken manure, on October 7, 2020 we planted roughly one-half of our field (five acres) to Danko Rye and the other half to Einkorn Wheat – neither of which had, to our knowledge, ever been grown in this area. The organic seed for the Rye we purchased from Oechsner Farms in Newfield, New York (just outside of Ithaca). Seemingly small logistical things like sourcing high-quality organic seed when it is needed and transporting it to where it will be planted are actually far more challenging than we would have ever imagined. Picking up our Danko Rye involved renting a pickup truck and nearly eight hours of roundtrip driving through a torrential rainstorm. Procuring our organic Einkorn Wheat seed was a lot easier – at least for us. Our friends at River Valley Community Grains (RVCG) have a long-standing relationship with Henry Beiler of Wholesome Acres in Watsontown, PA and they picked up and delivered the seed that was needed.
Part of farming regeneratively involves “cover-cropping” to minimize the amount of time that the soil is bare between “cash crops.” For this reason, as well as to provide a natural source of nitrogen to assist with the growth of our grains, on March 6th, 2021, we “frost-seeded” the entire field with red clover. This enables us to leave this clover on the field until we prepare to plant our next grain crop in the early Spring of 2022, thereby allowing the land to remain untilled for a solid eighteen months. Another goal of regenerative agriculture is to minimize tillage, which can significantly reduce and disturb the beneficial microorganisms that live in the soil. These organisms both increase the biodiversity and fertility in an organic farming system. Unfortunately, tillage remains necessary for weed suppression in an organic system, and so we are left with a constant tug-of-war between the disparate needs to control weeds, maintain vibrant, fertile, living soil, prevent erosion, and growth of a crop that is both commercially desirable and economically justifiable. A decision about any one of these things very necessarily affects all of the others. Farming is not at all simple. In a very real sense, farming is as much art as it is science.
Hand-weeding to ensure a clean crop
Over the course of the 2021 growing season, our fields weathered drought, excessive heat, torrential downpours – in short Mother Nature threw us just about everything in her arsenal that gives farmers big headaches in this part of the world. There was also a tremendous amount of time (and money!) spent preparing the farm for our first harvest. We hand-weeded our entire field between April 23rd and April 30th, 2021 – and let me tell you that although this significantly reduced weed pressure and helped ensure an incredibly clean crop for an organic farm, weeding ten acres by hand rivals the marathons and 100-mile bike races I (Jason) have done in terms of requiring both physical stamina and mental toughness! It is back-breaking work!
We also worked collaboratively with Jay to locate and purchase a used Combine to harvest the grain, two Gravity Wagons to receive the harvested grain, and in which we could store it until milled, and grain aerators that would allow us to dry the grain if we were forced to harvest the grain at moisture levels higher than was desirable, due to the weather. Finally, we negotiated an agreement with our partners at RVCG to purchase and process the entirety of our 2021 and 2022 harvests. They had to procure an additional grain cleaner and a de-huller to enable them to expand their capacity and to fulfill this role.
Deborah processing grain with RVGC
In many ways harvest itself is somewhat anti-climactic. So much time, energy, and money goes into everything that happens before the harvest, that harvest itself seems like a split-second in time. The weeks leading up to harvest were not without drama, as we determined that our grains were ready to harvest on July 8th, but six straight days of torrential downpours spiked the moisture levels of our crops and we needed to wait until the evening of the 15th before they were again dry enough. Those eight additional days on the field caused our Danko Rye to go from looking near perfect for harvesting, to exhibiting a fair amount of “lodging,” or falling over. This resulted in leaving almost half of the crop on the field because we couldn’t set the combine height low enough for fear of capturing too much of the red clover cover crop that seemed to have increased in height by almost four inches, in those same eight days.
Remember before how we mentioned the tug-of-war that goes on between soil health and crop economics? Well the very same red clover cover crop that was fertilizing our field and that would protect it from erosion over the coming winter also made it much harder to harvest our Rye crop and probably reduced our yield by roughly 50%. Fortunately the Einkorn Wheat harvest went off without a hitch and both the quality and yields look to be excellent.
Einkorn Wheat to the left and Danko Rye to the right with a crop break of crimson clover between
Cold Brook Farm 2021 Harvest at a Glance
Planted on October 7, 2020 into lightly disked soil that had previously been cover-cropped with cowpeas, millet, sorghum, sunflowers and radishes. Intercropped with frost-seeded red clover on March 6, 2021 for soil fertility and natural weed suppression. Hand weeded April 23 – 30, 2021. Harvested July 16, 2021. No synthetic agricultural products of any kind are ever used at Cold Brook Farm.
Planted on October 7, 2020 into lightly disked soil that had previously been cover-cropped with cowpeas, millet, sorghum, sunflowers and radishes. Intercropped with frost-seeded red clover on March 6, 2021 for soil fertility and natural weed suppression. Hand weeded April 23 – 30, 2021. Harvested July 15 & 16, 2021. No synthetic agricultural products of any kind are ever used at Cold Brook Farm.
Both of these exceptional, organically raised, locally grown and processed flours are available for sale at the following locations: