It doesn't have the convenience of Whole Foods, but picking produce off the tree at whole farms has its fans.
Small farms off highways in the dense communities of North Jersey are making money by inviting the public to assist with harvesting, distribution and sales. The farmers admit the goal is to sell their goods. But the pick-your-own programs have a latent agenda: to form a lasting connection among residents and their few remaining local farms.
"The opportunities around New Jersey to do this sort of thing are few and far between," said Kyle Holman, the brand manager at Alstede Farms, near Route 206 in Chester. "Open land is diminishing, and the farms are going with it."
Fewer than a dozen farms in North Jersey promote pick-your-own options. Far more popular in the massive agricultural swaths of central and southern New Jersey, farm excursions in the dense north nonetheless thrived amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jason DeGise, co-owner of Hillsdale's Demarest Farms. Now farmers are battling with reopened sporting venues, movie theaters and other event centers.
They have more than just apples and cider to offer, however.
Alstede Farms is now offering pick-your-own blueberries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, black raspberries, tart cherries and peas, Holman said. The first of more than 50 varieties of apples begin to arrive in mid-August. Pumpkins come in fall. Strawberry season came and went. It will begin again around next Memorial Day, Holman said.
The next big season, he said, is peach season. It is set to begin at the Chester farm later in July or early in August, aka National Peach Month.
New Jersey farms produce only about 2% of the nation's peaches and a much smaller fraction of the global supply, which is dominated by the home of the peach, China. Still, the Garden State perennially lands in the top five peach producers in the U.S., according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. In 2021, it finished fifth among the 50 states in total weight, producing nearly 14,000 tons at a nation-leading price of $2,610 per ton.
Some of those peaches are borne and sold on a narrow Bergen County farm just west of the Garden State Parkway. Demarest Farms has roughly 11 acres covered with rows of white and yellow peach trees, said DeGise.The Hillsdale farm started its pick-your-own program in the 1980s to introduce people to the property and its produce. Then, the farm sold about 4,800 ears of corn each weekend, DeGise said. Now, it sells about 480.
"People don't cook like they did years ago, when they would buy their fruits and vegetables at the farm," DeGise said. "Agritourism is a great way to get people onto the farm, and it's all generations, from infant to a grandma."
Demarest Farms has peaches available to pick now. Apples are due in September. Later that month, the farm expects to transition to pick-your-own pumpkins.
DeGise typically posts its seasonal offerings on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning on social media and his website. From there, pick-your-own patrons are expected to move quickly if they want a ticket for the weekend. Those sell out fast, as the farm staff limits ticket sales to avoid overcrowding. Many of the weekend sessions are also reserved early by out-of-towners.
"On the weekend, it's usually a nice mixture of people from Bergen County and New York City," DeGise said. "During the week, there are normally more local people from North Jersey."
Leslie Stanley, the store manager at Wightman Farms in Morristown, said only about 10% of people who come down Route 202 to pick fruit are locals. They come from all over the region, most notably New York City, and they come year after year, she said.
Rather than take reservations for advance tickets, like Demarest Farms, Stanley recommends that Wightman Farms patrons call the morning of a prospective trip to check the weather forecast and fruit availability. The farm offers a $10 annual membership for pick-your-own patrons, who pay by the pound for their haul and can return for any or all seasons, she said. The deal lets patrons enjoy the outdoors and lets the farm offload its goods.
"We couldn't possibly sell everything we grow," Stanley said.
Wightman Farms offers strawberries in June. Peaches and raspberries can be had now. In the fall come food trucks and hayrides to the pumpkin patch.
The farm fair atmosphere in the fall is another hallmark of North Jersey farms in the COVID-19 era. A lack of options for leisure activities allowed farms to fill the void. Alstede Farms' tickets — about $12 on weekdays and $17 on weekends — give patrons access to amusement rides and a pint container they can fill in the picking areas sandwiched between the Black River and Route 206 and take home. Demarest Farms went as far as opening a public drive-in movie theater during the height of the pandemic. The drive-in is now reserved for special events, DeGise said.
The 136-year-old farm will continue to build on its public Halloween and winter holiday light shows, which offer wagon rides, apple cider donuts and make-your-own s'mores, DeGise said. The exposure is tremendous for the farm, he said.
Pick-your-own farms in North Jersey
Demarest Farms: 244 Wierimus Road, Hillsdale, (201) 666-0472
Alstede Farms: 1 Alstede Farms Lane, Chester, (908) 879-7189
Ort Farms: 25 Bartley Road, Long Valley, (908) 876-3351
Wightman Farms: 1111 Mount Kemble Ave., Morristown, (973) 425-9819
Stony Hill Farms: 15 North Road, Chester, (908) 879-2908
Farms View: 945 Black Oak Ridge Road, Wayne, (973) 839-1212
Heaven Hill Farm: 451 State Route 94, Vernon, (973) 764-5144
Sussex County Strawberry Farm: 565 US-206, Newton, (973) 579-5055
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Like to pick your own fruit? These North Jersey farms are for you