My father grew up on a farm and from the time he became a teenager, his goal was figuring out how to get off the farm. He succeeded in that. He became the first person in his family to attain beyond a 4th grade education. My uncle is a farmer and I have always admired the breadth of interdisciplinary knowledge it takes to be a farmer. Plant genetics, plant physiology, meteorology, soil science, and other sciences such as ecology, earth science, biology, chemistry, engineering, and economics are just some of the major areas of knowledge a farmer needs to succeed. While my father ran far away from the farms of Haiti, I am running into the fields of corn, eggplants, jalapenos, and other produce in South Jersey.
This past week, I had the privilege of spending some time with two generations of farmers at Tom Pontano & Son Farms. They own 300 acres of farmland in Vineland. It was the most time that I have ever spent on a farm and one of the most enlightening experiences of my career. I always knew that it takes hard work to be a farmer, but the economics of farming even in the wealthiest country in the world are intricate and often do not favor those responsible for our sustenance. The agriculture business is a complex, extremely regulated, and an expensive enterprise. Needless to say, I walked away with a deep appreciation for my local farmers and a commitment to support them as part of my lifestyle and where my family chooses to shop for fresh produce.
On the professional front, as an institution located in a primarily rural area, Cumberland County College needs to better understand the business, challenges, and opportunities for local farmers. It is at the very core of our mission to serve the community. Farmers today face an array of issues including international competition which affects the prices they are able to command in the produce market, labor shortages, wage regulation, changing and less predictable weather, a strict regulatory environment, and managing the environmental impact of farming are among some of the issues. These challenges, for the most part, are not even related to the actual production of their produce. There, plant breeding, plant physiology, crop rotation, soil fertility, irrigation and drainage, weed control, and insect and pest control—to name a few—are major factors dominating farmers’ time with respect to the actual production of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Needless to say, I was impressed with my visit. The farms of Cumberland are one of the many natural assets in our collective wealth portfolio. They are also a way of life, the livelihood of many generations of immigrants old and new—from the more established Italians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans to the more recent Mexicans, Guatemalans, and other Central Americans. The academic in me also sees the farms as large field stations for more than just scientific learning and scientific knowledge generation. Our farmers, I learned, develop their breadth of knowledge mostly from field experience. Constant experimentation is a way of life for them, as are constant risk assessment and risk taking. They are constantly evaluating their business model in light of what appears to be always changing external factors.
Thank a farmer today. Buy their fresh local produce. It’s a job that fewer and fewer people want to do. Volunteer at a farm. Give back in whatever small way that you can. Thank you Tom Sr. and Jr. for an incredible experience and great insights.