by Sally Colby

Regina Gentile spent most of her life in the field of education, first as an educator and a guidance counselor, then as an administrator. After retiring from the teaching profession, she was ready to pursue her true passion: farming.

“As a young child, my hands were always in the dirt,” said Gentile. “I love watching food as it grows, and I’ve always had a home garden. This business was a natural progression for me.”

After Gentile and her husband purchased property, she started growing vegetables for friends and family. “When I retired, I wanted a greenhouse,” she said, describing how she started Regina’s Certified Organic Vegetable Farm in Howell, NJ. “That’s when I started growing certified organic potted herb and vegetable plants.”

Gentile’s greenhouse is about 70’ x 30’, and the first heavy use is from April until the end of June. “Even with swamp coolers in the greenhouse, it’s too hot to continue growing in there through the summer,” said Gentile. “We’ll pick up in fall with perennial herbs like oregano, thyme and rosemary, in time for the holidays.”

The glass greenhouse is heated with gas, and equipped with fans for air circulation as needed. Drip and mist systems ensure adequate moisture for plants. The watering system Gentile selects for each crop depends on several factors. “The misting is fine for vegetable plants, but I have to be careful when misting herbs because they can be temperamental,” she said. “Fungi can develop on plants such as basil, and if that happens, the entire crop has to be discarded. The drip system delivers the same amount of water to each pot, and it’s on a schedule.” The water source for irrigation is well water, which has to be tested per organic standards.

Several years ago, Gentile had a problem with aphids in the greenhouse, but was able to determine how they became established. “I opened the greenhouse doors and vents because it was so hot in April,” she said. “There was a gap under the door where they came in, so I closed that, and now the doors stay closed.”

In addition to her greenhouse venture, Gentile maintains about four acres of certified organic field-grown vegetable crops. The primary pest issue that requires careful monitoring is the Colorado potato beetle. “It goes after squash plants,” she said. “Even though there are approved substances I can use, I found it’s best to hand pick them off the plants. We dispose of those plants off the property, which has helped greatly to bring that problem under control.”

While plants in the greenhouse require nothing other than seed, sun, soil and irrigation, Gentile’s field-grown crops benefit from the compost she makes on site.

She started composting mostly out of a need to dispose of animal manure. “We have a horse, a donkey and some sheep and goats,” she explained. “The manure and shavings started to accumulate, and there are laws about how much we could let stand. When I first started, I went to composting classes at Rutgers and the local Extension. That was small scale composting with a tumbler, but I learned what I had to do.”

In addition to animal manure, Gentile adds organic materials including spent plants from the produce operation and greenhouse, animal bedding, leaves, corn stalks and grass clippings when available. She follows the NOP standards for composting.

Gentile maintains several static compost piles that are turned regularly with the bucket on her tractor. The compost is turned every two weeks year round, unless the piles are frozen deep inside. As the piles heat and degrade, she takes regular temperature readings and records both the temperature and the date. “The compost has to be turned and the temperature is taken five consecutive days and documented,” she said. “For the pile that is ready to sell, I’ll start taking the temperature in early April. I’m looking for a temperature of 135 degrees for NOP standards – my reading is usually around 140 degrees.”

Because she sells compost to the public, Gentile sends samples of finished compost to Rutgers for testing. The report comes back with the carbon/nitrogen level, and also includes a rating that designates the level of decomposition. She said a score of one means the compost isn’t finished at all, and eight is 100 percent finished.

“My compost is consistently at seven with no limitations for use,” said Gentile. “As long as the comment section says ‘finished with no limitations,’ it’s good. That’s what I’m looking for – I don’t want to sell anything that has pathogens.” When the compost is ready to sell, she loads compost into customers’ trucks or trailers with the help of the tractor bucket. She said a cubic yard is usually two buckets full, but she’s generous with the amounts to ensure customers receive what they paid for.

Since organic farming is all about the soil, Gentile selects one field each year for soil testing. “At times, there was too much nitrogen from the compost,” she said. “I had to switch to a cover crop the following fall. With crop rotation, there’s a fallow field each year.” Gentile said at the most recent organic inspection, the certifier was interested in seeing soil test results and encouraged her to use appropriate crop rotations.

To maintain certification, Gentile carefully records everything she does, from planting seeds to harvest or sale, produce washing and well water test results, all of which helps inspectors see her practices. She said the inspection also includes a thorough inspection of tractors (for leaks), storage sheds and all other practices associated with growing to ensure what she’s doing is approved for organic by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Jersey Organic and USDA Organic.

As Gentile plans and plants for the 2019 season, she draws on her experience with record keeping, organization and attention to detail from the education field. “The big thing is communicating with people,” she said. “If things go wrong, you have to know how to handle it, and it also helps to have a lot of patience.”