by Bill and Mary Weaver
There have been a number of interesting changes on the Donaldson Farms, near Hackettstown, NJ recently. According to Greg Donaldson, who with his extended family, farm 1,200-acres, about 400 of those in vegetables, 800 in grain and a retail greenhouse and nursery. In his PYO strawberry fields, Greg is planting a newly released variety from the Rutgers breeding program, Rutgers Scarlet. The plants are being grown by Nourse Farms and were in limited supply this year. New Jersey growers, who have been trialing the variety for the past 8 years in small quantities, have high hopes for Rutgers Scarlet as a replacement for Chandler. “Chandler has a number of problems when grown this far north,” Greg explained. “On our farm, it’s very prone to Anthracnose and Rhizoctonia and in general is not as hardy and disease resistant as we’d like. Also, if the berries are picked while they still have a white tip, the flavor is not the best.
Rutgers Scarlet, however, comes from a breeding program specifically focusing on flavor, to give direct marketers something special to offer their customers. “We’ve like what we saw when we trialed it,” said Donaldson. “A lot of Jersey growers are planning to grow it.” The variety was also trialed in North Carolina, Ohio and Maryland.
Donaldson Farms has been growing sunflowers as a rotation crop. The farm grows a variety high in oil, with thin-shelled seeds, that is grown for and recommended by the Audubon Society for birdseed. “It’s been pretty profitable in several ways,” continued Greg. “We bring it to a central New Jersey farm that machine sifts it and bags it for the NJ Audubon. Our customers can buy the seeds at our farm market from the sunflowers they saw growing on the farm.” What has been a real surprise, though, has been the interest and income generated at the farm in August and September by people who come to take the sunflower tours. The educational tours are run by Greg’s wife Katie, herself a photographer and artist, who understood the potential of the beauty of the 30 to 40 acres of sunflowers blooming on the farm. During the sunflower bloom period, sunflower tours are given every day during the week and all day on weekends. Katie and staff lead the tours. The tours, like the PYO, are run through the farm market, which is Greg’s part of the business on the farm. The sunflower tours include a “Pollinator Safari” for children. Even though there is a charge for the tours, customers flock to them.
Donaldson Farms even schedules a special sunset photography tour of the sunflowers, created at the request of many photographers, and led by published, professional photographer Rick Gerrity, of Panasonic and Unique Photo in Fairfield, NJ, who attracts a multi-state tour group of photographers for the opportunity.
In a third change, because of the difficulty of finding adequate, reliable labor, Greg has been doing more planting for the benefit of the farm’s excellent PYO customer base. He has been expanding a relatively new, high-density tall spindle apple orchard, in a wide choice of varieties, by and acre or two a year. “The high density spindle system is very expensive to set up, but then is so easy to prune and maintain,” he explained. “This system has been in use for a long time in Europe.” The apple orchard will soon be ready to open for very limited PYO. When 10 acres are bearing, it will be ready for all their PYO customers. Greg grows several other PYO crops: pumpkins, raspberries, Indian corn, and strawberries. The lack of reliable help has at times been heartbreaking in recent years. “Two years ago, I was ready to tear out all the peach trees,” Greg explained. “We had a good crop, but no pickers or pruners. I could sell three times our current 5 acres of peaches if I could find pickers. Some springs, crops have been left in the field unharvested for lack of help.”
Grafted tomato plants are another relatively new item that has become a staple. Heirloom Tomatoes grown for the farm market at Donaldson Farms, are now all grafted onto disease resistant rootstock, including Estimino and Maxifort. “We struggle with the grafting process. While we ‘baby’ the plants, in Japan, as you can see on YouTube, robots successfully do the grafting, roughly flipping the plants around and cutting them,” noted Greg. Their market has a high demand for heirlooms, and prices make the grafting worthwhile.
Greg prefers the heirlooms Pineapple, Brandymaster, “which looks like Brandywine, but has better yields and tastes better,” Black Velvet and Green Zebra. For cherry tomatoes, Donaldson is trialing the Bumblebee pre-grafted plants this year. In addition, the grafted heirlooms and cherry tomatoes for the farm market are now grown in high tunnels. “I found I almost double the yield from the tunnel-grown tomatoes compared to those grown in the field,” he continued. “In the tunnels, we picked from the same plants from mid-July through November. Outside, we had to make three plantings. We’d pick from each one for a few weeks, and then it was done because of cracking or disease.
Although cover cropping is not at all new at Donaldson Farms, the more recent emphasis on having all the land cover cropped, except their 1 ½ acres of brussel sprouts which are often picked well into December), by the end of the season, no matter what, is relatively new. “It’s not IF we cover crop,” Greg continued, “it’s WHICH cover crop. “Cover cropping makes a big difference in the health of our soil and in the persistence of soil borne diseases. The sweet corn and tomato fields are often planted in tillage radishes to break up the compaction from traffic. We also use clover, rye, and Sudan grass.
Another fairly new practice at Donaldson Farms is frequent leaf tissue analyses, on tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, apples, and peaches, to check for nutrient deficiencies.
How do you keep three brothers content on a single farm? Each has his separate “fiefdom,” in specific crops, greenhouses, nursery stock, farm market, and/or wholesale vegetable division. Both parents, in their 80’s, still work. Lewis works in the fields doing moldboard plowing and baling, and Helen works in the greenhouse and the farm market.
Greg and Katie are in charge of registering the New Jersey contingent for the Mid-Atlantic Convention every year, and Greg has taken on a number of other volunteer jobs for the New Jersey Horticultural Society.
by Bill and Mary Weaver