Three new farm enterprises will be sprouting on preserved farmland in Sussex County this year, thanks to an innovative new program created by the Foodshed Alliance, working in partnership with the Ridge and Valley Conservancy (RVC) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE) program addresses the difficulty farmers have in finding affordable land in NJ.

There are currently two SAgE sites, one in Warren County and one in Sussex County. The 2020 growing season is the second year a farmer has been on the Warren County site at Bread Lock Park on Rt. 57 in Stewartsville. The Foodshed Alliance leases 5 acres from the County of Warren and subleases it to a farmer who started Bread Lock Botanicals, a farm that follows the National Organic Program guidelines to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers.

The site in Sussex County is located at the Muckshaw Ponds Preserve on Route 206 in Andover and Fredon. Steep limestone ridges and eco-sensitive sinkhole ponds that sustain rare plants and long-tail salamanders are hallmarks of the 530-acre property, once slated to become a housing development. The preserve is also home to 60 acres of farmland.

The property was preserved by TNC which worked for 20 years negotiating with multiple landowners and procuring funding by a partnership team of TNC, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres Program, and the New Jersey State Agriculture Development Committee for farmland preservation. “When the site was officially and permanently protected in 2003, it came with a stipulation that the farmland sections remain agriculturally productive,” said Eric Olsen, Director of Land and Water for TNC in New Jersey.

In the years that followed, TNC managed the natural habitats and hiking trails, and temporarily leased the fields to local farmers. In early 2020, though, the site realized a fully sustainable vision as the Muckshaw Ponds site changed ownership to RVC.

The site remains fully protected, with RVC assuming stewardship of the location’s unique habitats and forested trail network for public use, and leasing the agricultural lands to Foodshed Alliance to operate the SAgE program.

“We are not only maintaining the fragile ecological areas, keeping public trails accessible and providing affordable land access to local farmers, but also creating a dynamic mini-lab to test organic practices, water management and sustainable production, which are important conservation considerations in their own right,” said Bob Canace, president of RVC.

The SAgE program at Muckshaw’s fields have three approved lease tenants and more applications under review. “The SAgE program is open to farmers who are dedicated to sustainable agriculture and who can demonstrate solid farming experience and business plans,” said Kendrya Close, executive director of the Foodshed Alliance.  See the application here.

Meet the Farmers

Sussex County Community College’s School of Agriculture will run a fully organic Student Farm onsite, cultivating and harvesting farm-fresh crops and supplying them to the college’s Culinary and Hospitality department to provide a farm-to-fork experience for student diners on campus. The five-acre plot will serve as an outdoor laboratory for Horticulture Science and Agriculture Business majors. Erin Collins, supervisor of the Horticulture and Agriculture programs at SCCC, says plans are in place for “seeds in the ground” in 2020. “We’ll start with cover crops, and transition to vegetables, herbs and cut flowers.” Grains will also be on the grow list. 

Munsee Three Sisters Medicine Farm is a Native American-owned company benefitting the Ramapough Lenape/Munsee group of indigenous people native to the highlands around Mahwah, N.J. by offering employment, growing food, and offering part of its of profits to social service programs. The farm will cultivate hemp in hoop houses on nine acres for the burgeoning CBD market.

Dark Earth Farms is a first-generation biodynamic farm with a unique and innovative approach in offering top quality hemp, vegetables and specialty products at an affordable price. They are leasing 13 acres to start a permaculture operation focusing on regenerative practices. Products will include hemp for wholesale, CBD products for direct consumer sales, vegetables, honey, and medicinal mushrooms.

“Besides facilitating the long-term leases, we envision working in partnership with the farmers in this program, providing ongoing technical assistance and facilitating synergistic and cooperative relationships with all farmers on the land,” said Close. “In addition, we will facilitate opportunities for the general public to learn about the source of food.”